Phil Gammage “Redeemed”

PreFab International Ciné, 2024

A collection of  americana that spans decades.

One of those words prone to overuse is “timeless” but there are occasions when it really does hit the spot. Such as when applied to describe the voice and music of Phil Gammage. Trying to pin down this sonorous, powerful baritone to a specific era is impossible. The same goes for his songs that are a rich brew of blues, folk and country. Phil Gammage spans the twentieth century, subject-wise he could have been around anytime, and to listen to then think Orbison, Cash and Waits. His songs are stories, sometimes poetry, that stretch across endless miles of a vast America populated by the characters he meets on the way with all their cares, woes and joys. It comes as little surprise to discover Gammage is not just a musician but a writer of fiction and a historian.

Born in Texas, Gammage’s home has long been in New York City. Interestingly, and faintly noticeable in some of his music, his early years as a musician were spent in France. But taken in the round this ninth solo album like most of its predecessors, is American music. He wrote all but one of the songs with long-time collaborator and poet David B. Schell. Gammage also produced the record, took lead vocals and played guitars, piano, harmonica, marimba and keys. But around him he has a fine group of musicians; drummer Michael Fox, bassist Jeff Gordon, Johnny Young on keyboards, Brian Hack on guitar, David Fleming’s harmonica and backing vocals from Joe Nieves and Lizzie Edwards.

As befits a consummate live performer Gammage warms up his listeners with a piece of upbeat pop, ‘Good Place’. A welcoming piano line jauntily opens then subsides for Gammage to set the scene talking rather than singing, “There’s still an old bench/ outside the coffee bar/ The owner there likes to laugh a lot/ and smoke his big cigar”. Immediately Gammage paints a vivd picture of place and people. Up an octave he croons with joy, “It’s a good place to fall in love” Alternating speaking and singing, harmonising with the other vocalists this simple song echoes with urban vibrancy.

When performed live Gammage describes ‘Right On’ as a “porch stomper” but this studio version conveys a thoughtful weariness stifling that prison cell. The country blues harmonica adds a feeling of regret as he ponders, “I can’t tell you how to live life, I sure as hell screwed up mine/ You and I are brothers we be both here doing time”.

That haunting, ethereal sense dominates ‘The Woman in the Window’, a gloomy tale of loneliness in the big city. A jazz, blues beat amplifies that sense of isolation as guitar solo and backing harmonies haunt in equal measure. A steady blues beat wraps around ‘Serious Trouble’, a song of apprehension, a warning of don’t go there, “Just heed my words friend/ that girl is some serious trouble”. A big sounding rockabilly guitar matches the swagger of the rogue ‘Johnny Lee’ and the brisk instrumental ‘Phil’s Boogie’.

The album’s only cover is ‘Prisoner of Love’. Inspired by James Brown’s version Gammage fills this 1930s classic from the American Songbook full of drama as he stretches out the words and arrangements to maximum effect. Closing track ‘The Rain’ mixes luxuriant slide guitar and shimmering keys as Gammage bows out softly, “And I’ll see her. She’s on the next train/ I’m here waiting in the rain”, his voice laden with hope gives way to despair.

‘Redeemed’ abounds with depth and drama to the extent that Nick Cave could be added to the “sounds like” list but sonically and lyrically Gammage is very much his own man. After this, his plentiful back catalogue is well worth exploring.


About Lyndon Bolton 136 Articles
Writing about americana, country, blues, folk and all stops in between
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