From the moment he graced the stage, the contagious jollities of Phil Cook were hard to ignore. As he stepped up in support of old pals Hiss Golden Messenger, he was likeable off the bat! Whilst usually backed by his North Carolian group The Guitarheels, tonight Cook took us through numbers from his debut LP “Southland Mission” solely on electric guitar. Beaming, and with his long curly hair flopping, Cook swayed and sang happily to intricate, finger picking-heavy Americana tunes of love and hope. The lilting celebrations of ‘Ain’t it Sweet’ lead coolly into meandering instrumentals, with his vocals all the while aiding each track seamlessly.
Amongst the gaiety there were also moments of deep reflection: a moving cover of Randy Newman’s ‘Sail Away’ was introduced with reference to the current political anguish in the U.S., and how the love towards those he considers his ‘brothers’ in HGM were keeping his spirits high, as friend and band leader MC Taylor watched attentively from side stage.
He really knew how to thump that guitar, and the overall dynamics of his playing were top draw; the muted thumb in his Travis fingerpicking created a deep intensity to the top lines his fingers were adding, and the incredible movement in his slide soloing kept us hanging onto every note amongst the quiet. Clearing emotional, he dedicated his last song (or his ‘whole set’ as he corrected himself) to his brother, Brad, sat by the merchandise stand and whom without Cook wouldn’t be on that stage. Well thankfully, he was, and he couldn’t have kicked things off with any more style!
The smoky groove of ‘As the Crow Flies’ re-ignited the evening, with Cook returning to keys as the room filled with a thudding kit and low, deep bass and electric guitar. Already the mood was killer, with frontman MC Taylor emerging, acoustic in tow as the anthemic chorus ‘Don’t get down / You’re nothing but a number’ rang around the head-boppin’ room. They were off, and the pallet of different arrangements from the outset really held it together, from the luscious harmonies of ‘Biloxi’ to the riff-heavy jams of ‘Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer’. They had the goods, and they certainly did their time: the nineteen song set boasted the pure essence of the Americana spirit, carrying a patient, traditional simplicity, repeated and built upon layers of mellifluous textures. From the upbeat hook-led jive of ‘Name for a New Born Child’ to the Floyd-y droning organ of ‘Cracked Windshield’, all the way up to the stadium stamping glory of ‘Southern Grammar’. It was soulful, and they never once lost the crowd.
Taylor himself was engaging, honest and a humble presence on stage. A man who’s clearly been doing this a long time (this project’s six albums in and nearly ten years old), he’s still happy to stand back, strum quietly and let the others add the show-pieces. And they were more than capable; new touring guitarist Ryan Gustafson stole the show on numerous occasions, with tasteful, imperative lead sections, the dulcet tones of his SG slotting in perfectly whilst taking the songs to the next level when they let go.
Where the show did falter came down to the lack of power from Taylor’s vocals. His understated top-line melodies did get lost amongst the rich backdrop of the band, yet soon soared when exposed; ‘Call Him Daylight’ saw a stripped back setup with just electric guitar, acoustic guitar and banjo, allowing the texture of his voice to shine through and send us into that hypnotic daze it’s capable of doing. Sadly this was a rare treat, as they chose to keep the arrangements a lot fuller for the most part.
With his track record, you come to trust Taylor’s judgement as to whom he shares the road with. What created the magic in this group, aside from the astounding playing and on-stage communication, was the brotherhood they clearly shared. To Taylor’s left stood Scott Hirsch, an old friend who’s been sharing stages with him for over twenty years, whilst on the right shone the gleaming smile of old pal Phil Cook at the keys, with everyone looking each others way and feeling each song out together.
The encore saw a ten minute version of ‘Brother Do You Know the Road?’, a meditative hymn that’s gorgeous textures built and merged before Taylor took the guitar solo of the evening, sustaining bends that permeated through the chaos, bouncing wildly around the room before drifting calmly back down. Off mic, the weary frontman walked into the crowd, invoking a sing-along of the main line, over and over. It was beautiful. There he continued pacing back and forth in front of the stage as we all continued singing, before disappearing out the side door as the band quietly drew the show to a close. With that, a collective feeling circled the room: there left a man who’d given us his heart.