The warm, low tremble of Willie Nelson’s voice drifting through the cavern of Cambridge’s TT the Bear’s felt appropriate Saturday night, as a bustling crowd awaited Grant-Lee Phillips’ arrival on stage. The room was lit only by a handful of red and blue stage lights, hitched over a sole microphone and drum-set. No big production here…only a simple, open landscape. A natural setting fit for a Grant-Lee Phillips show to take form.
As button-down suburban cowboys looked on an empty stage, former Grant-Lee Buffalo singer Phillips and drummer K.J. made a low-key entrance (save a discriminating eye, the two could easily have been mistaken for roadies). Described as deriving from “lost and bygone eras of long ago,” The Church’s “Under the Milky Way” started the set, one of several songs performed that night from Phillip’s new album Nineteeneighties, a record of stunning covers from the era’s underground dignitaries. It was just the song to begin the night with enough crisp autumn air filling a mid-August night, and a meteor shower at large right outside TT’s battered doors.
Phillips’ sweetly defiant version of New Order’s “Age of Consent” followed. Layered with the natural light of bright guitars and sandy, brushed drumming, the rendition was both understated and insistent. Phillips has breathed fresh life into these classic songs, revealing something that was always meant to exist. All in all, his approach at covers becomes somewhat of a poetic archaeology.
Following, he told the crowd, “I’m gonna slip into a harmonica,” before segueing into Virgina Creeper’s “Calamity Jane.” And as he sang of a girl with a “face like a saint” in the setting of a New Orleans fairytale, this southern, mythic sensibility steeped most of the night’s material: the furniture stores, steeples and boom days of “Bethlehem Steel” into the soft-pendulum, humid sway of “Mona Lisa.”
Fan favorite “Jupiter And Teardrop” was soon to follow, spliced with approving yelps from a nostalgic, beaming crowd. All through the night, the class reunion vibe was eminent, and welcomed accordingly. Grant’s reinvention of the Pixies’ “Wave of Mutiliation” received extra accolades, given the location, as he introduced the coyly-morbid number with “Here’s a song that grew from the soil we’re standing on.”
Phillips closed the set with “The Shining Hour,” a song from Grant Lee Buffalo’s first album Fuzzy, after a four song encore that included a dewy version of the Psychedelic Furs “Love My Way.” Satiated, the crowd dissipated slowly as Nelson’s voice crept slowly back over the din; singing of strangers, sad lips, and haunting moonlight. It was a natural conclusion to a mythic night.