Musicians have had to reinvent themselves all the time, from being in a band to going solo, from initial popularity to later plateau, even doing livestreams during COVID. Someone who’s had to do all of that is Grant-Lee Phillips, who shifted from his nineties alt-hit act Grant Lee Buffalo to solo in the twenty-first century, not to mention replacing his cancelled lockdown tours with weekly livestreams. But now he’s back on the road, behind this year’s All That You Can Dream (QRO review), and came to New York’s City Winery on Friday night, June 3rd.
The show was actually at the smaller upstairs Loft, one of many City Winery stops for him on this tour (the place has franchised – QRO venue review). This made for a particularly intimate setting, but thankfully the tables aren’t as packed in next to each other as the old City Winery (QRO venue review). The City Winerys have made a name for themselves for solo artists with fan base old & well-off enough to appreciate some good wine & food, and Phillips draws such fans, even just only himself up there on stage.
And he’s able to pull off the solo show because he’s got a lot of great songs – and a lot of great jokes. It’s essential for a solo singer/songwriter to be able to engage with the audience, joke with them, and Phillips had that in spades. He started with new material, from not just Dream but also 2020’s Lightning, Show Us Your Stuff (QRO review), which he never got to take on tour. But he peppered great new songs like “Straight To the Ground” and “Cruel Trick” by dedicating them to pyromaniacs and cow-painters (respectively), noting that they’d been put on the guest list. Phillips pointed out early on that, “Bands are on the road… I’m on the road… monkeypox is on the road. We’ve actually got the same agent, monkeypox & I.”
Shifting into earlier solo songs, he described debut solo album, 2001’s Mobilize, as “the one wear I’m wearing a Napoleon hat,” lamenting that it didn’t travel on tour – and after the lament over the cruelty of “Humankind”, noted how surprising it was that he wrote that before Twitter. He told the story behind Mobilize’s “See America” (which namechecks just-to-the-east’s Union Square), about visiting New York City (to go to CBGB’s to see the band Captain America – who were later forced by Marvel to change their name to The Vaselines) and accidentally getting off the Staten Island Ferry at the wrong point, taking a cab that asked directions to Manhattan.
And there was an absolutely hilarious back-and-forth with a few fans as Phillips tried to find a “Brianna” to wish a happy birthday to. He had been told to do so before the show, only the first person he thought was Brianna was Erica, and though there was an actual Brianna at the show, it wasn’t the no-show birthday girl. But not one to be deterred, Phillips psychically predicted that this Brianna had an “interesting” job (illustrator) and pet (rabbit). But she was born on November 22nd, noting it was the day of JFK’s assassination, to which Phillips replied, “You really bummed us out, Brianna…”
One question with any show by a solo artist who had a popular band back when, is whether he or she will play songs from the old band. Phillips’ set was all solo material until he went into a “Grant Lee Buffalo Rock Block” (“scientifically speaking”), all from 1994’s Mighty Joe Moon. That was the band’s most successful album, but they had four in total, so it was a little surprising to see Phillips focus so much on it. And he didn’t do as much banter then, though noted that “Mockingbirds” got the band in the “anals” of history, by being featured on Beavis and Butt-Head (“No higher honor…”).
[editor’s note: the seminal nineties idiots are actually returning on June 23rd on Paramount+, with both a new movie and the old episodes, including the music videos, which have long not been able to watch due to copyright issues]
Phillips returned to his solo material after Moon’s “Happiness” (“The saddest song I’ve ever written…”), including bringing on opener Jarrod Dickenson (QRO photos) and his wife for “Fool’s Gold” from Walking In the Green Corn, one of the few solo songs played not from Mobilize or the two most recent records. But then Phillips went back to his very first GLB record, Fuzzy, with “The Hook”, into the encore break – which itself was just Phillips walking to the backstage door, not getting in, knocking, and then coming back on stage as the crowd kept cheering (“You know I wanna play more – thanks for playing along…”). He asked for some requests, got a lot of shouts for GLB and Mobilize material, and replied, “I’m filtering it on in, taking it all in, putting it in a blender, and ignoring it. I’m playing what I want…” That was Fuzzy’s “Stars N’ Stripes” (an actual request, if a bit of an obvious one, as it was GLB’s breakthrough single), followed by two more recent pieces, “Cut To the Ending” and “Mourning Dove”.
Even as we’re trying to return to normal, it’s a ‘new normal’, with vaccinations and bubbles. But we’re getting back what’s important, what we really wanted, like a nice night out with an old musical friend such as Grant-Lee Phillips (and monkeypox).