On a Friday night in St. Paul, people gathered together at the Turf Club. People hugged and shouted things like “Oh my gosh, YOU MADE IT!!” That’s the kind of crowd that Phil Cook can bring together. High-spirited and ready to roll with whatever the night brings, as long as they can do it together. Phil casually chatted with some friends who had come out for the show at a table nearby. He’s just effortlessly friendly and cool.
I first discovered Phil at the first Eaux Claires festival. I was camped out at the main stage all day to see the final act of the night. Suddenly people swarmed in from everywhere for his set. It seemed that he had a huge underground following of people (honestly, they’re such fun people to see a show with). I wasn’t familiar with his name yet, but the man has had his hand in so many projects that I love, including Megafaun, Gayngs, and Shouting Matches with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.
Over the years of Eaux Claires I learned that when a Phil comes up on the schedule you need to see him. His collaborations with Bruce Hornsby, John Prine, Sylvan Esso, Blind Boys of Alabama, and Mavis Staples are always highlights for me.
Andy Jenkins started the night off. Hailing from Richmond, Virginia, he has just released his debut album on Spacebomb Records titled Sweet Bunch this summer and hit the road for a tour taking him around North America and the UK. He plays with a full band on the album, so I was surprised to see him walk onstage alone with his acoustic guitar.
Andy brought the beautiful easy-going melodic songs to the forefront with just the guitar and lyrics. It was a stripped-down set that reminded me of a stripped down Kurt Vile and Mason Jennings mixed perfectly together. It was a great introduction to this artist. Keep him on your watch list!
The crowd got more and more spirited throughout the night (beer, anyone?) and they were ready for some blues-heavy jams. Enter Phil Cook.
The Wisconsinite-turned-North Carolinian took to the stage with his band to play songs off of his newest release People Are My Drug. From the first notes of “He Gives Us All His Love,” we knew that the band was airtight. He had Michael Libramento on bass, Pinson Chanselle on drums, and birthday boy James Wallace on keys.
I think that any time these guys hit the stage they expect to have a good time, but you could feel the energy rise as the cheers and whoops from the crowd hit Phil before he started the second song “Steampowered Blues” and the energy exploded.
It seemed that each song started out as an easy to digest piece of music. Jubilant keyboards, bluesy guitar picking, and timeless lyrics slowly build into hearty guitar jams and heavy church-like keys that lift the spirits and get everyone clapping and dancing. Libramento’s hollow body bass kept perfect rhythm during songs like “Miles Away” and “Life.”
Phil’s skills are not to be questioned. He has honed his craft over his entire life and it shows. One of the most special thing about a Phil Cook performance is how he pays tribute to his inspirational figures. He paused between songs to talk about the loss of Aretha Franklin this year and her impact on the world while she was with us. He covered a song called “Aretha, Sing One For Me” by George Jackson in his set in tribute to her.
The show stopped as he stood at his microphone to talk about his upbringing in Wisconsin and how different his life was growing up as a white kid compared to the lives of minority children. He said that it was a privilege to stand at a microphone on a stage every night, and he intended to use that microphone to encourage everyone to vote this November. He then played a song called “Another Mother’s Son” dedicated to Valerie Castile, whose son was shot on the night of his son’s 5th birthday. It was a harrowing call to action to bring equality to the forefront of the political discussion.
The energy lightened up as they worked through songs like “Deeper” and “Now That I Know.” andy Jenkins even came back onto the stage to perform “Genuine Heart” with the band. Phil and the band left the stage and the house went dark.
A few minutes later Phil came back to the stage and performed a gorgeous instrumental piece and a song called “Truth.” Then, he polished off the night with fan favorite “Ain’t It Sweet.” Everyone was all smiles as the night wrapped up. Phil took one last solo as he stood over the crowd on the edge of the stage.
As I left the Turf Club I felt really happy. Music is healing. It was a sweet night indeed!
Suggested listening for Phil:
Don’t forget to check out Andy: