Appearing self-effacingly bemused as ever, Grant Lee Phillips, the former leader of 1990s alt-pop cult band Grant Lee Buffalo, showcased his considerable talents as a songwriter and singer, keeping the guitar players in the crowd scratching their heads as he coaxed whispers and screams from his electrically-charged acoustic 12-string, all the while never seeming to need to tune up.
Shifting between material from the past and present, Phillips was joined by upright bassist Sheldon Gomberg, drummer Kevin Jarvis and harmony singer Cindy Wasserman. The spare but vibrant sound of the ensemble matched the melancholy mood of Phillips’ new disc Virginia Creeper. A moonlight blue take on country-folk, the album features troubled characters and tragic stories that at times recall the mythic American chronicles of The Band or Bruce Springsteen.
But Phillips, who’s lately played the surreal strolling minstrel on TV’s “Gilmore Girls”, has a goofy side too. He demonstrated that from the start of the show, as he rolled his eyes and wondered aloud what attraction he might visit in Atlanta. “I can’t do Coca Cola and the Center for Disease Control,” he mused. “That’s just too much to do.”
New tunes included the soulful “Mona Lisa”, the lean, hook-driven “Calamity Jane”, and the languidly atmospheric “Josephine Of The Swamps”, while Phillips also played a few from his two previous solo discs, Ladies’ Love Oracle and Mobilize.
But it was clear from the applause that his Grant Lee Buffalo songs remained closest to most of his fans’ hearts. Phillips obliged by lifting several favorites from their catalog, including the brilliantly bittersweet “Mockingbirds” and “Honey Don’t Think” as well as the title track from Mighty Joe Moon. “Fuzzy”, the slow-burning slacker anthem from GLB’s debut album of the same name, proved that the upper register of Phillips’ clear, rangy voice is still intact.
At one point, he offered up a riveting rendition of Gram Parsons’ sad-eyed ballad “Hickory Wind” (the final track on Virginia Creeper). He ended with Lucinda Williams’ “Drunken Angel” — a cover choice that, along with his nod to Parsons. seemed to confirm where along the musical continuum Phillips sees himself fitting in these days.