Sam Phillips is wise, fascinating in her area debut at the Linda

“I’m just a singer, and I thought of it,” Sam Phillips modestly said at WAMC’s Linda Norris Auditori
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“I’m just a singer, and I thought of it,” Sam Phillips modestly said at WAMC’s Linda Norris Auditorium on Sunday after praising unconditional love in “Don’t Do Anything” with the words, “I love you when you don’t do anything.”

Phillips has thought of lots of things, including many that other singers have thought of, too. But few singers have thought about them with the wisdom Phillips brought to them on Sunday, or brought a more ingenious band to accompany her. “I Need Love” started the show with distorted insistent chords from her red electric guitar before drummer Jay Bellerose, behind a marching-band bass drum, and multi-instrumentalists Ted Wrightman and Eric Gorfain beefed it up, achieving chamber-orchestra power without overpowering her.

In her bright red dress and lipstick to match, the thin, elegant, blonde singer seemed more Sally Kellerman than Aimee Mann, to whom she’s sometimes compared for her angular looks and thin voice. But when Phillips next slid into “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” a tribute to gospel queen Sister Rosetta Tharp, she uncorked the first of many art-song antique-sounding tunes one could easily imagine Marlene Dietrich singing, but not singing any better than Phillips in her moseying, matter-of-fact fashion. Gorfain bowed a sci–fi looking Stroh violin with a metal body and bell attached while Wrightman squeezed an accordion.

Three guitars cloaked “Little Plastic Life” in distortion appropriate to its subject: divorce from husband/longtime producer T Bone Burnett. Proclaiming her songs “not that sad,” she explained that even with painful change, “you never know what’s next” — a perfect promise for her ever-surprising songs.

Muscle and odd sounds

Bellerose really muscled the rocking “No Explanations,” another pained breakup song, and slapped a snaredrum against his leg for odd sounds in “Can’t Come Down,” about recovery. Even odder was Phillips solo strategy of accompanying herself, as the band left, with a small tape recorder that played the apocalyptic “Animals on Wheels,” vigorously waving it past the mic to create vibrato. “Edge of the World” was one of many waltz-time tunes, a jaundiced assessment of Los Angeles, her hometown. By comparison, the minor chords Gorfain’s Stroh violin slid under “Fan Dance” felt conventional.

“I Dreamed I Stopped Dreaming” and “Signal” waltzed past, one blithely, the other neo-nostalgically, like a visit to Paris in the future. Then “Shake It Down” made the most noise of the whole show, followed by the serene soft-rock of “Don’t Do Anything,” the rocking counterbalance of “My Career in Chemistry,” another waltz “All Night” and the neurotic warning/assurance that “help is coming — One Day Late” with Wrightman’s whole body shaking to impart vibrato to his accordion and express the agitation of the song.

Fortunately, Phillips brought some hope at the end with “Watching Out of this World.” For a singer who deals fearlessly with difficult subjects, Phillips and her exceptional band made the listening — well, not easy exactly, but fascinating for sure — on Sunday in a slightly too short, action-packed show that surprisingly marks the local debut of this surpassing and sophisticated talent.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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