Sam Phillips is, quite simply, one of the best singer-songwriters of the past 15 years. She’s had several great albums in a row, including the new one on Nonesuch, Don’t Do Anything, which is the first one she’s produced herself since divorcing her longtime producer T-Bone Burnett. She’s continuing to explore unusual sonic settings for her songs, clearly carrying on what she learned from working with Burnett.
She played two concerts this weekend at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, and I saw the first of these shows, on Saturday (Sept. 6), which also happened to be the first show of her tour. She apologized a couple of times for any first-night jitters or mistakes, saying, “So you’re going to get a little extra for your money – a few odd notes.” No need to apologize. No need at all. Phillips put on a superb performance, with a terrific trio of backing musicians (Jay Bellerose on drums, Eric Gorfain on guitar, violin and banjo, and Ted Reichman on guitar, piano and accordion). I did not hear the least bit of shakiness in this confident, beautiful performance.
Phillips often turned her eyes upward as she sang, sometimes darting her glance back and forth, and a smirk occasionally played across her lips. She seemed at peace with herself, and maybe a little amused. Commenting on a woman in the front who’d brought a big bag of jelly beans to the concert, Phillips said, “You just can’t face me without that sugar – I know the feeling.”
In the oddest bit of stage banter, Phillips introduced her new song “Shake It Down” with a surreal little story. “Recently, I met an angel and he said, ‘You want to wrestle?’ I said, ‘OK.'” Continuing, Phillips explained how she’d asked the angel for a song. “He said, ‘You chick singers are all alike.’ I said, ‘Hand it over.’ And this is what he gave me.”
When Phillips’ band played noisier passages of cabaret music with clattering drums, it reminded me of Tom Waits. And when the violins played, I heard touches of Andrew Bird. Her voice reminds me of no one else.
For more on the Sam Phillips concert, see my review for the Southtown Star newspaper. The show also featured a nice opening set by another female singer named Sam, Samantha Crain, who won a pretty long round of applause from an audience largely unfamiliar with her music.