The Scala, King's Cross
27 April 2008
Indie fans of a certain 90s-era vintage may have fond memories of the US guitar trio Grant Lee Buffalo. One of the best multiple billing gigs I attended was at Western Springs in Auckland on 28 January 1995 - R.E.M. headlined, Crowded House were second billing, and opening the evening's performance were the most energetic band of the night, the young (then) Grant Lee Buffalo, with their razor-sharp rock chords and superb lead vocals from Grant-Lee Phillips himself. I quickly became a fan, and sought out their first two albums - the pretty, loping grace of Fuzzy (1993), which was once lauded by Michael Stipe as 'the best album of the year hands down', and the punchy indie pop noise of Mighty Joe Moon (1994). After GLB disbanded at the end of the 90s Phillips reappeared as a solo artist, releasing a series of albums including Mobilize (2001), a perfect collection of pop songs and ballads that received wide critical acclaim if not huge sales.
Last night's performance by Phillips at the Scala in King's Cross showed that he has lost none of his enthusiasm for music-making and none of his ability with the guitar or death-defying vocal ranges. He strode on wearing the shirt he's pictured in above, and with an unruly mop of hair that would do Richard Hawley proud. He proved a genial host to the crowd of 400 or 500, plucking song requests from the audience to expand the setlist, and was accompanied only by a sidekick on keyboards.
One highlight of the evening was his performance of Dixie Drugstore, a rambling New Orleans ghost story from the Fuzzy album with an electrifying falsetto chorus. Phillips quickly admitted he needed his lyrics book to perform it - 'there are a lot of words in that one!' - and joked, 'gather round now, chillun - grandpa's gonna sing you a song from the old songbook'. It proved to be a roistering boogie with a blinding honky-tonk piano solo, and at the end Phillips applauded his nimble keyboardist memory skills: 'that's only the second time he's heard that song!'. A high quality set of Grant Lee Buffalo songs from the 90s heyday also made an appearance, proving that Phillips has written some great material, and can still nail the stratospheric falsettos on the title track of Fuzzy, where Phillips sings the word 'fuzzy' as if infected with the spirit of rogue choral angels:
All and all the world is small enough for both of us
To meet upon the interstate waiting on a train
And just when those big arms lift up fall in love with no time to say it
I liked to
Now I'm fuzzy
I've lied too
Now I'm fuzzy
While people were shouting out song requests, I pondered the tracks I would ask for if I was the shoutin' kind (which I ain't). Aside from the ones he played, I have a real soft spot for the shiny pop multi-tracked harmonies and euphoric air-punching choruses of Spring Released from Mobilize ("Damn this floor is thumpin' spring released and / My little girlfriend's hanging light / I feel the blood rush pumpin' haulin'..."), and the jauntily perfect pop pastiche of The Whole Shebang from the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack (1998) - both deserved much broader fame.
We'll take the whole shebang
All or nothing, anything
Ecstasy's the birthright of our gang
We'll take the whole shebang
Free your heart of guilt and shame
Come and claim what's yours
The whole shebang
With his penchant for lyrical Americana and prowess with the acoustic guitar, it's a relief that indie fans were able to enjoy Grant Lee Buffalo as a middling-successful rock band, because if Phillips had been in thrall to the twang and become a hat act instead, his songwriting and performing talents would surely have seen him attaining a much higher profile the country genre. We can only be grateful that he was born in California rather than Tennessee!
(Earlier, the support act for the evening was Oxford singer-songwriter Richard Walters, who performed a selection of his delicate yet absorbing acoustic numbers to a positive response from the Scala audience. His blog profile says he imagines his cat singing like Stina Nordenstam, which is a good thing in my book).