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Big as life: Sam Phillips at the Linda.

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Little Wonder

By David Greenberger

Sam Phillips

The Linda, Sept. 14

In the decade and a half since her album Martinis & Bikinis, Sam Phillips has gradually moved away from the expansiveness of pop to the intimacy of miniatures full of emotionally rich, small gestures. Her rare Albany appearance last Sunday found the petite singer-songwriter fronting a small ensemble (three) in front of a modest-sized audience (about a hundred), and keeping that audience riveted for an hourlong set that carried the wallop of a three-hour movie.

The opening song made her artistic intentions clear. She stripped away the radio shine of her most well-known song, “I Need Love,” replacing it primarily with her own fuzzed guitar and the circus-parade drumming of Jay Bellerose. Even the sound mix created its own sonic space, as foreground and background elements traded places like Laurel and Hardy’s hats. A distorted guitar usually would be given the spotlight, but instead hers was shrunken down, forcing listeners to follow it, discovering all sorts of other treats along the way. Meanwhile, the stage whisper of a loose snare’s rattle was pushed front-and-center like a newly crowned king. All the while, Eric Gorfain and Ted Reichard played a variety of guitars and other instruments (the rare and visually alluring Stroh violin for the former; accordion, bass guitar, and keyboards for the latter).

Phillips’ new album, Don’t Do Anything, is her first self-produced release, and her first since the end of her marriage to T-Bone Burnett, who’d previously handled the role of producer. In fact, the album is rife with the tolls exacted by the disentanglement of a romantic and domestic life. Even the package itself marks the change: Where earlier Phillips titles utilized high-style photography with thoughtful art direction and design, her latest utilizes rough, cut-and-pasted collages and scratched, smudged photos.

Besides the aforementioned near-hit and the bulk of her new album, the set also visited selections from Fan Dance, A Boot and a Shoe, and Omnipop, the latter supplying the night’s one completely solo performance, on which Phillips sang along to a hand-held miniature cassette-recorder for “Animals on Wheels.” Even though some of the songs clocked in less than three minutes (15 songs in an hour, plus between-song stage-patter: You do the math), there was a unified feel to the night. Such is the power of Sam Phillips’ songs, singing and presence. So mesmerized was the audience that, to her stated delight, the end of the third song (“Little Plastic Life”) found everyone continuing to silently listen, as the final guitar notes slowly decayed to silence, before erupting in applause.

No Joke

Tony Clifton and the Katrina-Kiss-My-Ass Orchestra

Revolution Hall, Sept. 12

“There’ll be about 50 people there,” I told my co-pilot, “and I’ll know 45 of them.” I wasn’t far from wrong. It’s been 24 years since Andy Kaufman died, and longer than that since his lounge-cretin creation Tony Clifton made a lot of smelly noise. The idea of a Tony Clifton tour in 2008 was so ludicrous, in fact, that I just had to go see what it was all about. That and the possibility of even a little dose of Kaufman-esque humor, thrown at us from beyond the grave, which would be so much better than the tepid, cowardly crap that passes for comedy today.

It’s hard to know where to begin. Show of the year? Absolutely. Of the decade? Maybe. Seriously. This was a three-and-a-half-hour performance-art piece, a steamroller of deconstructed pop culture in the form of broads, killer funk, disgusting jokes, booze, smokes, more broads, brilliantly absurd choreography (performed by one or more broads), suspended uncomfortable moments (fueled by booze and broads), and transcendental musical moments (yanked out of inconsequential ’70s pop songs) all swirling around a fat, sweaty, greasy-haired, chain-smoking, loud-mouthed drunk. You just can’t beat that.

It was theater, with the various broads (that’s what they’re called and there’s really no better word) changing costumes constantly, never letting up with their show-girl smiles, and dancing around Tony to “punctuate” the songs; the sparkly cowgirls sliding hobby-horses between their legs during the repeated reprieves of “Rhinestone Cowboy,” for example, was particularly memorable. Or the high-kicking Statues of Liberty in pasties during the rousing “God Bless America.”

There’ve been reports of chaos at other shows, with Tony melting down, and furiously attacking the audience or his ensemble, events that were unscripted and quite real. We only got a taste of that halfway through the second show, when Tony cruelly berated “Trixie,” his onstage-assistant/cocktail-waitress-in-garters, whom he claimed to have picked up hitchhiking outside of Biloxi, Miss., and was about to adopt. She’d been flicking empty shot glasses to the “crowd” while Tony was “singing” and Tony was highly agitato. The band got quiet, Trixie left (not to return), Tony mumbled for a few minutes, poured himself another drink, then led the band through a torrid “I Will Survive.” It was perfectly, astonishingly weird. There wasn’t a false move on anybody’s part the whole night, because for all of its artifice—and the show was ostensibly entirely artifice—it was the most real show I’ve seen in a long, long time.

This would all have been meaningless stupidity if the band didn’t kick. As this was a fundraising tour for New Orleans musicians, Clifton had a young, aggressive band of them, and they turned the most trifling of pop fluff into withering, funky masterpieces. The five-piece horn section was all over the place, more than once assembling in a circle on the dance floor blasting to a crushing vamp, while Clifton sat on a bar stool, beaming, with a bourbon in one hand and a smoke in the other. All was right in this perverse, totally wrong, totally refreshing parallel universe late on a Friday night in Troy, N.Y.

—Paul Rapp

Only a Northern Song

Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies

Old Songs, Sept. 12

It’s one thing to write a new song that sounds like one, but composing something that could pass for a traditional ballad of the British Isles is far trickier. Such tunes are the stock in trade of Jez Lowe, whom Richard Thompson hailed as ‘the best songwriter to come out of England in a long time,” and whose band, the Bad Pennies, were named by the BBC as the best British folk group of 2007. Lowe’s delightful ditties, which largely dwell on themes of working-class life in Lowe’s native northern England, have been covered by Fairport Convention, the Tanahill Weavers, Cherish the Ladies, and others. Last Friday it was an unalloyed pleasure to hear a sampling from his 15 albums at Old Songs’ 90-seat Voorheesville concert hall.

After Lowe, 53, who accompanies his nimble tenor voice with acoustic guitar and cittern, the Bad Pennies consist of Kate Branley on fiddle, mandolin, and vocals, electric bassist Dave De La Haye, and Andy May on Northumbrian bagpipes, keyboards, tin whistle, and piano accordion. They painted a lightly textured backdrop for Lowe’s songs, which have melodies reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s in that they are clearly the fruits of a longtime folkie. The frequent, graceful upward leaps in Lowe’s singing also recalled fellow English northerner Paul McCartney, which might sound odd until you consider that both Lennon and McCartney started out playing skiffle, which also had its roots in folk music.

Resembling a 19th-century sailor in one of his trademark horizontally striped jerseys, Lowe led off his first of two sets with “A Call for the North Country,” a song of hopefulness he wrote around the chorus of “Some day, some say, we’ll all be green in the north country.” The Northumbrian pipes and the fiddle wove a unison counterpoint to the verses, making it plain why listeners often assume these tunes to be traditional.

Lowe’s second offering, “Hard Life for a Rover,” was a departure from the folk mold, though. Although the lyrics, which described the hardscrabble existence of manual laborers in Lowe’s native region, showed no traces of modernity, a pop chord progression belied its recent origins.

Except for a single reference to eBay in “Fancy Goods,” a conversational vocal duet with Branley about a husband’s disgust with his wife’s large collection of knickknacks and her corresponding antipathy for his trove of records and musical instruments, Lowe’s musical wayback machine hummed on for the rest of the night. Drunkards, coal miners, mariners, street urchins and lovers peopled the air around the stage, and by the time the Bad Pennies were done I was a fan.

—Glenn Weiser

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