Phil Cook’s gospel-inflected playing marks an arrival


Phil Cook opened his set at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem on Sunday with “Belong,” a song he wrote for his wife Heather.

Gently picking the tune on his guitar, he built in a melodic counterpoint, his instrument producing its own call and response, a gentle meditation against a droning overtone. Brevan Hampden lightly tapped a tambourine and Pinson Chanselle set a rudimentary beat on drums, creating a spare sound reminiscent of Sun Records’ early blues, country and rock-and-roll hybrid. As the song developed onstage, the calm and reflective sound of Cook’s guitar playing built into a hallelujah choir.

Since relocating from his native Wisconsin to the Triangle area in 2005, Cook has burrowed into the North Carolina music scene as a bandleader, producer, singer, multi-instrumentalist and sideman, founding the freak-folk group Megafaun with brother Brad and contributing to Mike Taylor’s music project Hiss Golden Messenger. Over the past five years, Cook has gradually come into his own as one of the most gifted guitarists of his generation, while building a name for himself as a solo artist with a trio of albums culminating in last year’s Southland Mission.

“As we settled into the state, Phil slowly began to unravel and wrestle with the region’s complex dualities,” his wife Heather writes in an online essay heralding an album she says she “cursed” through its making because of “its interruptions and inconveniences.” Phil and his cohorts, Heather writes, “have been finding their sounds and voices within a regional paradigm that shifts and shuffles, ever so slowly, with the passing of each sweltering summer. Now, over a decade into our stay, Phil has become a staple in the area’s studios. He has produced, composed, written for and recorded on dozens of regional and national releases. He is enthusiastic, steady and humble in his work. He is a partner and an ally for other musicians, drawing people together through subtle alchemy. Phil Cook has become a conduit of American music.”

Reveling in the significant life events that have unfolded for him in North Carolina, Cook took stock of his marriage, the birth of his son Ellis, the eminent arrival of a second child in about a week and a half and the way, as he put it, that “the road has widened” in his burgeoning career as a music artist during his concert at SECCA, part of the Crossroads music series. The joy and exuberance that bursts from his music and propels his legion of creative alliances springs from a likely source in Cook’s Wisconsin childhood: his dad’s LP collection. Cook noted that Chicago — where the blues became electrified — was the closest big city, and his dad’s records heavily reflected the genre. Another side of Chicago music reflected in the records was Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Singers. The latter act in particular has profoundly influenced Cook’s music.

“Pops Staples is my favorite guitarist,” he acknowledged. “Mavis, Cleotha and Pervis are my favorite harmony singers. They always had a song with a message and they sang with heart. I always use as my guidepost the Staple Singers. I love them.”

Not one to try to obscure his sources, Cook also acknowledged Ry Cooder as a hero.

Both influences are readily apparent in Cook’s guitar playing, with its syncopated shuffle, mellifluous slide and joyous outpouring. The exuberant leitmotif of Cook’s playing returned again and again to gospel music during his concert on Sunday, but his skilled quartet, which included bassist Michael Libramento, in addition to percussionists Chanselle and Hampden, subtly abetted him with a variety of styles that shifted with ease from country blues to Philly soul and New Orleans funk.

Cook and his band attacked Cooder’s “Crow Black Chicken” with evident relish, with the bandleader laughing during Libramento’s bass solo and as Hampden made the congas pop.

Taking advantage of the sedentary theater setting, Cook played three pieces by himself, including an instrumental on his red Harmony that evoked joy and grief in equal parts, serving as a reminder that music at its essence is an expression of the soul that largely obliterates stylistic distinctions.

And when the bandleader properly fulfills his role as shaman, music becomes a collective experience instead of merely a virtuoso performance. On two occasions during the evening, Cook tapped the audience for help, first with a song about indecision in which he had the crowd singing, “What took you so damn long?/ Done been here all day long,” and then with a song written for his young son, with the sleepy line, “Ellis… it’s time to wake up.” On the latter number, Ellis peeked out from under the stage curtain behind the stage, cracking up his father and drawing gales of laughter from the audience.

Cook infused politics into his set, with the band giving a simmering funk treatment to Randy Newman’s wickedly satirical “Sail Away.”

Then Cook introduced one of his own songs, “Great Tide,” which he characterized as applicable to Gov. Pat McCrory and HB2, despite being written long before the bill was signed. Cook described the song as being about “small-minded” men who attempt to hold back the tide of history by using shopworn rhetoric of division and fear, dedicating it to “McCrory’s castle of s***.”

“If someone wants to walk out, it’s fine with me,” said Cook, who almost always wears a beatific smile. “It’s fine, and you’re wrong.”

The audience erupted in applause, and no one walked out.

“S***’s about to hit the fan, so you better hit the floor,” Cook sang before the band erupted into a hurricane groove and the musicians shouted, “Hey-yeah!”

With trouble across the land, hallelujah choirs might be in peak demand.