The first time I saw Glen Phillips perform, I didn't know who it was until about midway through his set. He was opening for Counting Crows at the Schnitz, and as I listened to his unquestionably pleasant voice I kept thinking, "Wow, he sounds really familiar..." When he launched into "Walk on the Ocean" the lightbulb went off. Phillips is the former lead singer of Toad the Wet Sprocket (which, incidentally, is now touring again, I find).
The second time I saw Phillips, I only found out about the show that morning. It was at Mississippi Studio, a tiny and intimate venue which seemed to suit Phillips' style perfectly - there were probably only about 50 people there.
The third time was last Thursday at the Aladdin Theater, and I continue to be really impressed by him as an artist, as a singer and mainly as a performer. There is nothing flashy about Phillips. He's a small man, and wears oversized T-shirts, baggy jeans and flip-flops onstage. The acoustic guitar seems large on him, and yet the voice that comes out is oversized.
Phillips onstage at Aladdin Theater
But let me back up momentarily...
I've always been one to show up early to shows, always in time to see the opening act - even if I didn't recognize the name. This practice has, several times, led to happy additions to my CD collection. And since Phillips himself was once such a discovery, I was curious who he'd have opening for him. I'm glad I got there early.
David Mead was the opener, and I'd never heard of him before. The man walked onstage and picked up what looked like a miniature guitar. I turned to my friend and said, "Is that a ukelele??" Why yes, yes it was - and so I was honestly surprised that his music didn't sound like it came from an island somewhere...
At any rate, his voice is what kept me most in thrall - it's a beautiful voice, not sharp at the edges but precise in its vocal wanderings, and his range is extraordinary. I'm quite sure he hit notes that would have been considered high in my register. He moved ably back and forth between his ukelele and the keyboard, and his clever lyrics and pretty melodies convinced me - at the break I went out to the merch table and bought one of his CDs. My friend and I chatted with him briefly, too, and I have to say - though I know it's not easy to be a "struggling musician," I like meeting struggling musicians. By and large, they're nice people. Mead was no exception. I bought three more of his CDs from his website the day after the concert. I'm hooked.
Phillips took the stage by himself, performing a handful of songs before being joined by his friend Seattle singer-songwriter Jonathan Kingham. Kingham provided some lovely backing vocals and additional guitar or keyboard to fill out the sound. Although Phillips is perfectly capable of commanding a performance all on his own, I'm a particular fan of vocal harmonies, so I was happy to hear Kingham's contributions.
Kingham & Phillips
The duo performed several songs from Phillips' newest album, Mr. Lemons, a couple of covers and one of Kingham's songs as well. In between songs, however, was when the fun stuff happened - the kind of thing that makes a Glen Phillips show feel more like it's taking place in your living room than a theater. The two men spent time tuning between each song, laughing about how lame it was that they needed to constantly be tuning. When Phillips would put the capo on his guitar to start a new song, Kingham, seated at the keyboard, would say, "What key is this one in?" To which Phillips would reply, "It's in this key," and strum a chord, leaving Kingham to figure it out for himself. Kingham eventually said, "Oh, it's in E. Hmm. We've never played it in E before." (As I'm writing this, I'm realizing that it's hard to convey the sense of humor appropriately here; perhaps it was a "ya had to be there" moment, which is too bad, as the entire audience was having a grand old time.)
During the encore, someone in the audience said something that clearly amused Phillips...
Despite my ailing throat (still getting over that stupid head cold), I sang along as best I could when audience participation was asked for, and sometimes even when it wasn't. Phillips performed nearly all of my favorite songs in a set that seemed painfully short - even with an encore. And thanks to a recording policy that seems, to my mind, like a 21st-century version of what the Greatful Dead encouraged, there's always someone in a Glen Phillips audience with microphones and recording devices, and the shows are downloadable on Archive later. I see the June 8th show is already online, and am looking forward to hearing it all again and again.