All Music Guide:
‘It’s a lonely place out there on the road when you’re doing it alone,” says singer and songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips. “Every so often, I like to go out with a couple of friends and do something collaborative.”
To that end, Phillips has teamed up over the years with such musical mavericks as British neo-psych troubadour Robyn Hitchcock and Neil Finn of Crowded House. In 2002, he toured with John Doe of X and Kristen Hirsch of the Throwing Muses under the moniker the Exile Follies.
“Those crazy pairings can make for an interesting night,” he says.
On June 12, Phillips brings his latest road show, the Various & Sundry Tour, to the North Bay. The tour features siblings Sean and Sara Watkins, two-thirds of the bluegrass string band Nickel Creek; singer and songwriter Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket; and ace fiddler Luke Bulla. Grant-Lee Phillips frequently sits in with this loose-knit association at Largo, a popular West Hollywood cabaret.
The Various & Sundry gang, Phillips says, captures the spirit of those late-night sessions. “We approach this like a band–a mix of folk, pop and bluegrass–with everyone stepping up to the mic,” he says. “We’ve found a way to back each other up, pitching in as if we were on the back porch together. It’s unusual because you don’t usually find a group of singer-songwriters who have this kind of flexibility and who can find their place in an ensemble.”
Despite a recurring role on the high-profile Gilmore Girls TV show and an ABC News review that dubbed him “one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation,” Phillips is hardly a household name. Yet his solo work continues to mature, and his side projects are among the most vibrant on the Americana landscape.
Phillips grew up in Stockton, where he formed the Doors-inspired Shiva Burlesque with Jeff Clark, a school pal who shared a fondness for the neo-psych sounds of such paisley underground bands as Rain Parade and the Dream Syndicate. The band split after two strong albums having developed a fringy sound that the All Music Guide once described as too post-punk to be folk-rock and too folk-rock to be post-punk.
In 1992, Phillips and the Shiva Burlesque rhythm section reformed as Grant Lee Buffalo. The band’s debut album, Fuzzy, with its moody, cinematic mix of alt-rock and acoustic ballads, garnered rave reviews. The album earned Phillips a reputation for crafting thinking-man’s pop and drew attention to his soothing, wistful vocal style. In 1995, Rolling Stone critics voted him best male vocalist.
Grant Lee Buffalo toured with REM, Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins, and got lots of college-radio airplay, but the band never generated mainstream interest. After the release of the band’s 1999 neo-psych masterwork, Jubilee, which includes the wonderful Beatles-esque ballad “The Shallow End,” Phillips embarked on a solo career.
His 2001 solo sophomore effort Mobilize was praised by one reviewer as a work of “pure genius” on a par with REM, Radiohead and U2.
Hello mainstream success. Phillips’ third solo album, 2004’s Virginia Creeper, featured stark portraits of a mythic America, including an apparent homage to Jane Fonda (“Calamity Jane”). Critic Steve Leggett likened the album to Springsteen’s unplugged folk-classic Nebraska.
But those neo-psychedelic roots showed themselves again last year when Phillips released the intimate album Nineteeneighties, delivering wistful covers of songs by REM, New Order, the Pixies, the Cure and the Psychedelic Furs, among others. In contrast to his current collaborative project, Phillips’ new album, Strangelet, finds him playing nearly every instrument, from guitar and piano to bass and ukulele. It ranges from the reflective “Runaway” to the T. Rex&–inspired rocker “Johnny Guitar.” Peter Buck of REM adds guitar, and the Section Quartet provide strings.
The odd title refers to a hypothetical and potentially irrational subatomic particle that is believed to possess the power to consume an entire star. “I thought, ‘That’s kind of a wild concept,'” Phillips says. “I feel like music activates on a similar level. A lot of us grew up with some kind of physical music format, like cassette tapes, that we can get a physical grip on. But as time goes on, we’re getting accustomed to downloading it; it’s passing through the air, it’s an intangible thing.
“What it does to us physically and emotionally is difficult to put into words. But it’s a poetic marriage that I can get behind.”
Grant-Lee Phillips and the Various & Sundry Tour perform Tuesday, June 8, at the Mystic Theatre. 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 8pm. $20. 707.765.2121.