There are some musicians whose work becomes a part of your life story. You latch onto their words to find the meaning in your life; they help you navigate the rough parts and celebrate the high points. I think everyone who likes music has a singer or a band that fills this role and for me that person is Glen Phillips.
Glen is the lead singer of the band Toad the Wet Sprocket, whose hits in the 1990s included “Walk on the Ocean” and “All I Want” (I just heard the latter at my local grocery store on Thursday). Glen later went on to record a handful of solo albums and EPs and worked on side projects Mutual Admiration Society, Plover, Remote Tree Children, and W.P.A.
For the last 20-some years, Glen has been observing and experiencing life, distilling it into words and music, and dispensing it to all who care to listen. I have been a dedicated fan for nearly as long. His approach of writing “emotionally specific, situationally vague” lyrics, as he once described them, allows the listener to connect with his words and imbue them with personal meaning. For me, he has been like an absent older brother who sends letters filled with sage advice, which arrive exactly when I need them. He is also my favorite singer; there is something about hearing his voice live in a relatively quiet room that sends chills down my spine (especially when he sings falsetto), reaches inside and squeezes my heart, and has moved me to tears more than once.
Having said that, obviously I was excited to hear him play a solo concert at Soho Restaurant and Music Club in Santa Barbara on Tuesday, September 8. I certainly love hearing him rocking out with Toad, but the solo shows feel so much more intimate, casual, honest, and open, where oftentimes his emotions are laid bare in his performance. It is also fun to hear him speak of his inspiration for songs, as well as hearing him go off on tangents that are loosely related to the song at hand. He is a pretty well-read guy and most solo shows seem to include a book reference.
Glen certainly mixed things up for us that night, perhaps borrowing a page from the Watkins Family Hour playbook, by having some special guests and amusing banter. He seems to loosen up in this venue, with its welcoming, hometown crowd populated with family and friends. His 14 -year-old daughter Freya (who has performed some duets with her dad previously on the Soho stage) and her friend Curran opened the show. Curran played guitar and provided harmonies to Freya’s lead vocals on a couple numbers. She has a lovely, jazzy type of voice, which is delightful to hear.
Glen kicked off his set with the yet to be released song “Leaving Old Town.” The song has a few nice versions available for viewing on YouTube, so in that way it is already starting to feel familiar. The song is clearly a personal one inspired by Glen’s change in living circumstances during the past year. Such a beautiful and heartfelt piece.
Glen has written a slew of thoughtful songs in his time, some that rarely get played live. He mentioned one of his daughters requested this song and he was worried about remembering it before he started playing, but went on to give a solid live performance (love the vocals) of “Brain Trust Kid” — now the first live version on YouTube. This song comes from his Unlucky Seven EP, which is made up of a set of songs that did not make it onto his album, Winter Pays For Summer. It really shows the depth of his songwriting when even the off cuts are this clever.
A note about the guitar in the video. Glen normally plays a Lakewood (which he did use for a few songs), but for most of the night he was playing a mini Taylor, which was having some difficulty staying in tune. Perhaps too much heat and humidity in SoCal in recent weeks affecting the instrument, as Glen seemed to be tuning more than usual. I don’t mind though, I’d rather have him in tune!
During the show, Glen’s brother, yes that “Brother,” Dan Phillips, accompanied him on piano for a few songs (including new songs “Baptistina” and “Go,” and solo Glen song, “True” — link from show). He also played a djembe on Glen’s song, “Gather.”
Surprise special guest Teitur, a singer-songwriter from the Faroe Islands, took over the stage in the middle of the show. What a treat for me, as I started listening to his music about a year ago and was so happy to finally see him live. He played piano and sang his songs: “It’s Not Funny Anymore,” “You Never Leave L.A.,” (just what I was thinking as I was sitting in slow traffic on the 405 on the way up to the show), and “Home.” He borrowed Glen’s mini Taylor guitar to play “Shade of a Shadow,” another one I captured on video. Glen joined him on stage providing harmonies on Teitur’s song “Josephine.” Then Teitur played piano on Glen’s songs “Don’t Need Anything” (this song has recently become one of my older son’s bedtime song requests) and “Last Sunset” (link of that performance). If you are unfamiliar with Teitur, I recommend you follow some of the links and check out his music and/or get the album Poetry and Airplanes.
Besides the special guests, the wonderful thing about this concert was how much new music Glen played. I’m sure there were people who would have liked to hear more Toad songs (he only played the two big hits mentioned earlier from Toad’s catalog), but I was thrilled to experience the new stuff. Glen has been writing a bunch of new songs over the last several months and recorded a new album in June (not yet released).
Several of the new songs have been already enjoying discussion on the fan circuit. The lighthouse-inspired song “Go” has been played live at a few venues already and during Glen’s StageIt concerts and was fondly referred to as the “Sad Lighthouse Song” until we learned the title. Glen was inspired to write this song after hearing a podcast about lighthouses and says, “The message that they’re basically saying is ‘I love you, now go’ and I liked that idea.”
Glen referred to new song “Baptistina” as “pop and upbeat,” smiling as he noted that it is “all about an extinction level asteroid plummeting into the earth.” He referenced both a podcast titled “Apocalypse!” and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower as inspirational in the creation of this song. You can’t keep that man away from an apocalypse/post-apocalypse song that is begging to be written! (See his songs “My Own Town,” “Fred Meyers” and even the aforementioned “Don’t Need Anything”.)
Another new one to look forward to, especially lyrically, is the song, “The Easy Ones.” I believe at the previous concert I attended that he referenced the Dalai Lama’s work The Art of Happiness as inspiration for this song. The subjects in the three verses echoed so strongly for me in the main areas of my life, with starting lyrics, “You can’t just love the easy ones,” (my kids), “You can’t just play the simple songs” (when learning guitar), and “You can’t just walk the shortest road” (when you are a runner training for races).
One that he wrote just last month, and I think this was the first live performance of it, was a song that includes whistling throughout, with a line in the chorus, “Peace to us, peace through us…”. He said he wrote it in the afternoon during his vacation in South America and it certainly feels mellow and swaying, like relaxing in a hammock in a shady spot while sunlight spills through tree branches to dapple the ground.
The last of the new ones he played is called “In Grief and In Praise”. This feels like a Bob Dylan song. It examines the inevitability of change and touches on one of Glen’s recurring themes of living in “The Moment.” The chorus says it all: “For all you hold dear will be taken some day, by the Angel of Death or servants of change, in a floodwater tide without rancor or rage, sing loud while you’re able, In Grief and In Praise.” Yet another song that seems written for me as I am processing a major life change. Thanks, Glen.
Toward end of the night he had one last guest, singer Khäsy Modisette, who joined him for harmonies on his song “Everything But You.” Today’s post title is taken from that song’s lyrics. He also played one of the best songs that he as ever written, IMHO, “Rise Up,” which he originally played with W.P.A.
For those who like more details, most of Glen’s set list of the night is on Setlist.fm. If you made it through this long review and would love to see and hear more of Glen Phillips playing solo right now, I highly recommend the One on One session that Glen recorded, which is available on YouTube. It is simply him with his Lakewood acoustic guitar playing all of his best solo songs, a few amazing covers, and some hits from Toad the Wet Sprocket. It is exquisite.