Amongst old carpeting and pompous high ceilings, Grant-Lee Phillips and his acoustic guitar look like they are about to play a secret gig in someone’s (admittedly rich) private living room. Even if it’s not the case, well, it feels like it anyway. When on tour, Phillips likes to strip it down to bare minimum, leaving behind his fellow musicians Jerry Roe (drums) and Lex Price (bass), who took part in the recording of his latest album ‘Widdershins’ released in February of this year. Being alone on stage doesn’t frighten him though. For Phillips, it’s like going back to the source of the album-making process just like a natural circle of life, from laying the foundations of the songs to the afterlife of his records. The experience allows him to play differently with some areas of the song too, cunningly tweaking and twisting them.
It’s interesting to see him perform his new songs solo, because the album distances itself from previous work ‘The Narrows’ with its straight to the point, rock-infused punch. However, his songs don’t need electrified instruments and percussion to demonstrate their liveliness and tonight’s show proves it. Phillips starts the set with ‘Walking in Circles,’ which is also the opener of the album. The roaring effect of the original song is not lost as he strums his guitar with soaring energy. The song inspired him for the title of the album, ‘Widdershins’, which means “moving counter to the sun”; anticlockwise; against the flow. Grant-Lee Phillips has always loved writing about social issues and this album explores the theme with sensibility and wit. Gifted with great storytelling skills and a talent for crafted metaphors and personification, his songs address darkness without plunging into total hopelessness. ‘Miss Betsy,’ with its image of a horrible stepmother exploiting children, and ‘Unruly Mobs,’ with the use of the Marie Antoinette reference to personify disdain and abuse of power, are both compelling example of this.
After presenting his new numbers to a reasonably reserved crowd, Grant-Lee Phillips performs songs from his previous album such as ‘Cry, Cry’ and ‘Holy Irons’. He acknowledges the sublime acoustics of the place and jokingly suggests taking the venue and the crowd away with him. “How great is it to play in Bristol again. Last time I was here, I went to the best bakery in the world. Does it still exist? Underneath the station…? I really hope so”. A few very shy affirmations emanate from the audience. But when Phillips declares that he’s going to take us back to the nineties, some spirits in the crowd awaken with excited growls. So, a fair number of Grant Lee Buffalo songs are tackled, such as well-known ‘Jupiter and Teardrop,’ which echoes Bowie’s ‘Moonage Daydream’. He explains to the crowd his fascination with Britain’s best guitarists and his admiration for Brian May’s special trick of using a sixpence instead of a metal guitar pick. The final song of the evening, the clever ‘Fuzzy’,’ shows his voice reaching highs with gorgeous control and what a perfect way to finish the set.
Grant-Lee Phillips’ performance in Bristol tonight is outstanding. From personal introspection to questioning about what the hell is going on in the world, he invites the crowd to join him on a special journey without falling deep into despair. With hard-headed vitality and musical finesse, he demonstrates that after all, not much more is needed that a man and his guitar.
Photography by John Morgan