Glen Phillips and Friends. At the Lobero Theatre, Wednesday, February 7.
Reviewed by Michelle Drown
It was seven years ago when I first heard progressive bluegrass band Nickel Creek. They were touring with Glen Phillips and I caught their show at Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco. Since then, Nickel Creek, which includes Chris Thile (mandolin) and the Watkins siblings — Sara (fiddle) and Sean (acoustic guitar) — has been nominated for and won several Grammy awards and Phillips has released two critically acclaimed albums, Winter Pays for Summer and Mr. Lemons.
Last Wednesday night at the Sings Like Hell series I had the pleasure of seeing Phillips and the Watkinses onstage together again. (Thile was not in attendance.) It struck me years ago how well Nickel Creek and Phillips complemented each other musically; Sara’s fiddle playing and delicate harmonies, Sean’s impressive guitar prowess, and Phillips’s gorgeous voice swirled together to create an extraordinary aural experience. And so it was again this night.
The Watkinses weren’t the only friends to join Phillips on the Lobero stage, however. The evening also included performances by Grant Lee Phillips (no relation), whose songs were dynamic and engaging; Luke Bulla played a touching rendition of Rodney Crowell’s “Adam’s Song,” which he dedicated to his brother who’d passed away; and Gus Black, an L.A. singer/songwriter, did a terrific version of REM’s “You Are the Everything.” Other guests were Sean McCue on guitar, Grant Lease on pedal steel guitar, and Benmont Tench on piano.
The round-robin evening saw all combinations of the musicians performing, with Phillips popping on and off the stage frequently. He took lead on some numbers, singing such favorites as “Waiting,” “Blindsight,” “Train Wreck,” and “Released.” Highlights of the night included a celestial version of Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “Windmills” by the Watkins siblings and Phillips, and an ethereal rendering of “Last Sunset,” on which Grant Lee Phillips added rich harmonies to the airy number. The Toad pop/rock song “Whatever I Fear” translated effortlessly to fiddle, acoustic guitars, and three-way harmonies — a testament to Phillips’s dynamic songwriting.
Although he was billed as the headliner, Phillips generously shared the stage with his über-gifted friends, thus treating the audience to some new and unfamiliar artists. But despite the sizable talent on stage, Phillips rose to the top with his remarkable voice, brilliant songs, and charming banter. It would have been nice to hear more from Santa Barbara’s favorite son, but Sings Like Hell’s mission to introduce audiences to “the greatest music you’ve never heard” was duly achieved and overall it was a delightful evening.