“… searching for benediction…” were the last words that Michael Perry preached to the crowd at Eaux Claires Festival earlier this year in Wisconsin. This past Wednesday, those words resonated in my mind again when I witnessed Phil Cook along with his band, The Guitarheels play at Rough Trade NY.
But before I get into Phil Cook, let me tell you what I saw beforehand. This man, Ryan Gustafson, who usually plays in his band, The Dead Tongues, was presented to us solo. With his hair tucked neatly into a knit beanie and at least 4 guitars and a beloved banjo stacked up next to his stool, he proceeded to lay down some of the most precisely intricate and perfect fingerpicking I’ve seen and heard in recent times. I remember him playing with Phil’s band at Eaux Claires, and he would also pull double duty on this night, but I couldn’t think of a better opener than him. He’s one of those artists that you know will make it. I would categorize his music as bluegrass, and while he sang and strummed, my mind transported me into the lush woods of Wisconsin that I spent 3 nights enjoying, and I envisioned miles of highway stretched out before me, or a lazy Sunday drinking lemonade on the creaky front steps of an old cabin. I could have watched him all day. He was ridiculously good; so good I wonder how long before he heads out on his opening tour.
Now onto Phil Cook… or should I say church. Phil Cook and The Guitarheels gave us a set that felt like church on a Sunday morning. Not one of those stuffy churches that everyone stays seated and stares into the pages of their hymn books… no… this was akin to the most lively, hand-clapping, foot stomping, holy ghost catching Baptist church you could imagine. And let me just put this out there – Phil Cook has got SOUL. You can’t wear a t-shirt with The Staple Singers’ names on it and not have soul. But he has it, and it was evident in every note he played and every lyric he sang. The Guitarheels were also a perfect fit. I couldn’t imagine a better band for him to be coupled with on his first solo tour.
Starting out with the upbeat “Ain’t It Sweet” of his newly released Southland Mission, toe tapping immediately ensued and I was delighted to see a lively bunch of folks race up in front and start dancing in the large space in front of the stage that was empty. “I saw some asses shaking out there!” Phil said with a wide smile. His easy going, playful demeanor also helped to lighten up the stoic NY crowd and before the night was over, everyone would be moving in some capacity. He also gave thanks and ample time for each one of his band mates to shine and I loved watching everyone onstage genuinely having a great time. He played the majority of his debut album, and looked delighted that many knew the words and happily sang along. He even threw in a wonderful Curtis Mayfield cover that fit perfectly into his set.
While this may be a new chapter in Phil’s life after playing in so many bands and working in the music industry for 20 years, this felt like the best step for him to take. Phil seems to exude all around kindness and good-heartedness which attracts the best kind of people to him, as well as the best musicians. I’ve loved everything he has done in the past from Deyarmond Edison, to Megafaun, to his work with The Blind Boys of Alabama, to The Shouting Matches and now to his solo work. Looking forward to seeing where this southern boy will go next.
Article: Lesley Keller