The Wickham Park Hotel
Thursday, May 17, 2018
Review By Nick Milligan
Images by Craig Wilson
If you’re not careful, a special show might fly under your radar, lost in the insistent static hum of the world wide web. One must be awake at their post, vigilant, watching and listening for that sharp blip as it moves across your screen.
The Newcastle visit of ‘90s indie-rock hero Grant-Lee Phillips is one such flying object. Thankfully, it has not gone entirely unnoticed. A strong crowd of underground purists has crammed into the front bar of The Wickham Park Hotel for an evening with the gifted singer-songwriter. Formerly the vocalist of band Grant Lee Buffalo, whose four records featured reverb-drenched, shimmering anthems anchored by earthy vocals, tonight’s main act holds court with an acoustic guitar, a genial presence and the air of a master craftsman.
Phillips has a vast songbook to draw from, but this Newcastle visit is in aid of his ninth solo studio record, Widdershins. The songwriter gives his latest release its due attention, commencing with its opening track ‘Walk in Circles’, and then rolls through the lament on social disparity, ‘Miss Betsy’, and asserts that humans have a long way to go in ‘The Wilderness’.
The setlist then visits his 2016’s The Narrows, with the smoky ‘Cry Cry’ and ‘San Andreas Fault’, the latter an ode to the fault line that one day might swallow his native home of California.
Phillips then acknowledges that some punters may have discovered him as the town troubadour in the hit series Gilmore Girls, where his music punctuates its seasons, often in key moments. These days his hair’s shaggier and he’s lost the thick-rimmed glasses. But there’s no mistaking him. One pivotal scene of the comedy drama features his song ‘Mona Lisa’, which he now performs for the attentive crowd.
Phillips’ kinetic strumming gives his songs a rolling, propulsive quality, especially on the brilliant ‘Wish I Knew’ from his 2003 record Virginia Creeper. His deep vocal tones still recall the legends of Americana music, the outlaws who wielded the guitar like an extension of their body. But there’s tenderness too, evident on his haunting cover of The Church’s ‘Under the Milky Way’.
Brimming with anecdotes and wry humour, Phillips throws the set open to requests from the crowd, which reaps a stripped-down version of the thundering Buffalo classic ‘Lone Star Song’. Support act Matt Joe Gow then joins Phillips for two duets, the foreboding Buffalo tune ‘Come to Mama, She Say’, and a deep solo-career cut in ‘Calamity Jane’.
Phillips closes his transfixing performance with ‘Fuzzy’, Grant Lee Buffalo’s biggest hit, and the crowd sings along to the drifting, dreamy falsetto of its memorable chorus.
The show has been absorbing and consummate from beginning to end and one can’t help but feel great pity for the innumerable Novocastrians who’ve allowed this evening to pass them by. Hopefully the adoration from tonight’s hardcore fans encourages Phillips to return. Keep your eyes on the radar.