In my pre-rock tourist days, I was as crazy about Grant Lee Buffalo as a person could be, short of--errrr, doing what I do now when I'm crazy about a group or an artist. It was this impact that moved me to investigate Grant-Lee Phillips's solo work when the band broke up, and it continues to bring me back to his newest releases today.
Grant-Lee Phillips, Great American Music Hall, April 24, 2007: When I first saw this date on the Great American's calendar, I assumed that Grant was back in town for another round of promotion behind nineteeneighties, his collection of covers released last year. Little did I know that he had a new album of original material coming out! Thankfully, I was disabused of the notion in time, and this month's freelancing has been fruitful enough that I could afford a ticket to the show.
Last time I saw Grant, he was spreading holiday cheer as part of Aimee Mann's stable of merry elves. Of course, Christmas comes but once a year, and the vestiges of the season were gone, but he brought back at least one element of last December's shows to San Francisco: Paul Bryan, Aimee's longtime bassist, had joined Grant's crew. Rounding out the trio was Jay Bellerose, who apparently also has ties to Largo, Boston, and the talented artists who've put both on the musical map. This left Grant with lead guitar duties, and I was glad to see that he brought along the electric this time.
Together, they hit a good chunk of the new album Strangelet, including "Hidden Hand," "Raise the Spirit," "Johnny Guitar," and "Fountain of Youth." Since he was playing with a new band, Grant didn't have as much leeway to break out the audience requests, but he credited Paul and Jay with providing the impetus to unearth "Wish You Well" from the first Grant Lee Buffalo record. I wouldn't have guessed that we'd hear "The Shining Hour" and "Lone Star Song" either, though both "Mockingbirds" and "Truly Truly" were welcome staples. Inevitably, he reached for the acoustic for a significant segment of the set that included "Honey Don't Think," "See America," and "Don't Look Down," among others.
A complaint commonly lodged against my favorite band (you know which one) is that they don't rock anymore. I usually dismiss the accusation, and if pushed, I'll counter with the argument that they aren't the same band these days--apples, oranges, and such. Which is why I hate what I'm going to type next. I miss rockin' Grant, and I was hoping that Grant would use the electric to transform the songs on the new album, Strangelet, into something more dynamic than the studio versions.
To Grant's credit, he's clearly trying to change up his sound from album to album, and Strangelet shows off his glam influences more than anything I've heard from him before. Several tracks sound like unabashed homages to T. Rex, though the lyrics are certainly Grant's own. My beef, then, is that the album is oddly prim--as if it was recorded with residential decibel limits in mind. Grant has written some awesome songs for this album, but their full potential feels unrealized. Still, that left me with plenty of hope for the live show, which is where the magic happens anyway.
The gig fell short of those expectations, though Grant was in sweet, joking form and both Paul and Jay were able players; I especially liked Paul's smooth basslines and backing vocals. Despite Grant's solo turns on the guitar, the songs that stood out the most to me were from the Grant Lee Buffalo days. For example, "The Shining Hour" and "Lone Star Song" sounded amazing, whereas the new songs didn't quite pop.
Grant-Lee Phillips has always been a one-off for me. Grant Lee Buffalo was both rootsier than the indie bands, yet more rocking than the singer-songwriters I gravitated toward at the time. As a solo performer, he remains hard to pigeonhole, which may be his ultimate charm. I know this won't be the last I'll see of him.
Patrick Park opened the show. A few years ago, he seemed to be the opener of choice up here, drawing vague comparisons to Elliott Smith with his melancholy, melodic tunes. I recognized a few songs from the last round, and he introduced a handful of new titles as well. Though he's not my cup of tea, he's a talented, likable performer who deserves to find an audience.
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