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Grant-Lee Phillips

Dec 1, 2020

Grant-Lee Phillips
Credit Belfast Empire Music Hall

Muddy Bottom Blues

Program #227 (November 27 at 8:00 p.m. and November 28 at 3:00 p.m.)

Many singer/songwriters are considered either strong vocalists who can also write or gifted composers who can sing a bit. Grant-Lee Phillips, on the other hand, is an exception, a tunesmith with an impressive command of both lyrics and melody who also possesses an instrument that's full of expressive character.

Phillips' voice has a smoky texture paired with a honeyed smoothness, and his music is concise and graceful, matching the thoughtful romanticism of his verses. Phillips initially earned a significant reputation as the leader of the group Grant Lee Buffalo, who broke through with their debut album, 1993's Fuzzy. After going solo, he delivered a consistently strong body of work, with 2001's Mobilize, 2009's Little Moon, and 2016's The Narrows as standouts.

Grant-Lee Phillips was born in Stockton, California on September 1, 1963. When he was in his early teens, Phillips first picked up the guitar and developed a keen interest in music. At age 19, he left Stockton for Los Angeles, where he attended UCLA in the evenings while working as a roofer during the day to support himself. He then dropped out of UCLA and started attending classes at the California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita.

At CalArts, Phillips became reacquainted with a friend from Stockton, Jeffrey Clark, and they decided to form a band. The first group, the Tom Boys, didn't get far, but their next project, Shiva Burlesque, fared better, releasing two albums (1987's Shiva Burlesque and 1990's Mercury Blues) and earning recognition from critics before breaking up by the end of 1990.

After Shiva Burlesque broke up, Phillips began playing solo shows under the name Grant Lee Buffalo and soon recruited two former Shiva Burlesque members to back him up, bassist Paul Kimble and drummer Joey Peters. In 1992, Grant Lee Buffalo became the name of the group, and Phillips' compelling vocals, atmospheric melodies, and on-stage charisma earned them a loyal audience. They soon landed a deal with Slash Records. Their debut album, 1993's Fuzzy, earned rave reviews, and the band's cult following expanded well beyond California.

The trio released three more albums -- 1994's Mighty Joe Moon, 1996's Copperopolis, and 1998's Jubilee -- that were celebrated by critics, but they failed to break through to a larger audience. The group disbanded in 1999.

Before Grant Lee Buffalo broke up, Phillips had already begun branching out, producing an album for a band called Eenie Meenie and guesting on albums by Eels, Robyn Hitchcock, and Aimee Mann. He made his solo debut with the 2000 release Ladies' Love Oracle, an intimate set he released on his own label, Magnetic Field Recordings.

In 2001, he teamed with the Rounder-distributed Zoe label for his second solo LP, Mobilize; that same year, he made his acting debut on the television series Gilmore Girls, playing the recurring character Grant, a local troubadour. (He would contribute a tune to 2002's Our Little Corner of the World: Music From the Gilmore Girls, a collection of music that appeared on the show.)

2004's Virginia Creeper was another intimate effort issued by Zoe, and he guested on the 2006 album Forever Hasn't Happened Yet by John Doe. (Phillips and Doe had previously toured together with Kristin Hersh under the banner the Exile Follies, and the three would hit the road again in 2020.) The year 2006 also saw the release of Nineteeneighties, in which he covered a handful of alternative rock favorites of the '80s.

He contributed songs to the soundtrack to the 2007 movie Arctic Tale and delivered another solo album, a set of fresh material titled Strangelet. With 2009's Little Moon, Phillips joined the artist roster at Yep Roc Records, and in an unusual collaboration, he co-wrote two songs with comic Margaret Cho for her 2010 album Cho Dependent. Two years later, Walking in the Green Corn was a set of songs informed by Phillips' Native American heritage, and 2016's The Narrows was his first album after leaving California and making a home in Tennessee.

Life in Tennessee seemed to agree with Phillips, who remained steadily productive, bringing out Widdershins in 2018 and Lightning Show Us Your Stuff in 2020, two albums full of political and social commentary.

(provided by Allmusic)