Josh Phillips Folk Festival - Blind Tiger - Greensboro, NC 09.10.2009

Josh Phillips Folk Festival - Blind Tiger - Greensboro, NC 09.10.2009
The Folk Festival captures that silky, smooth sound that differentiates Phillips from the rest of the musical fray.

I first met Josh Phillips in 2005, when he was serving as “front man” for Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band.  Although the Booty Band played straight up, Get Naked Funk, Josh’s songs were melodic, soulful, and captured that yearning passion that many of us feel walking this complicated planet.  For all of the bluster and pomp of the “Booty Show,” there was a certain refined, sultry charm to many of the Booty Band’s songs back in those days.  Phillips was a major factor in the Booty Band’s charm for me, and one of the main reasons I attended so many Booty Band shows over the years.  When I heard the news that Phillips would be leaving the Booty Band to pursue his yearnings as a singer / songwriter, I knew that great things could and would arise for him.  

In the two years or so since that change, Phillips has released his highly acclaimed studio album “Wicker,” has ramped up his touring schedule with the Folk Festival, and has begun a tireless effort through email, facebook, and the like to get the Folk Festival “on the boat” for Jamcruise 2010.  All the while, he has maintained that same charismatic charm and lovable demeanor that have won him so many fans and friends in the first place.  This was the Folk Festival’s first time playing in Greensboro, and I was ashamed to admit, my first Folk Festival show as well.  We arrive at the Tiger early and hear much of Dopapod’s (Boston, MA) excellent set.  Greensboro can be somewhat anemic in its appreciation of “live” music, but the Blind Tiger has brought some great bands in on weeknights over the years.  That night was no different, with Dopapod delivering an excellent set to set the mood for the Folk Festival.  The crowd was solid for a Thursday night, filled with several old friends.  I run outside to smoke a cigarette before the show and cross paths with Phillips, making his way in from the September air.  Although I have not seen Josh in over a year, he hugged me warmly, and I tossed a couple of questions at him, inquiring if he “was ready to take over the world.”  He laughed with me for a few minutes and then continued with his business.

After my brief interlude outside, I return inside and hear the last remnants of a brief sound check.  Although I have claimed that Greensboro can be “anemic,” both in this and in other show reviews, I have to hand it to the loyal Stalwarts in the Greensboro scene.  Folks like “Mama K,” Slim Jim, Wayne Murray, and the infamous H have dotted the scene for years and can be relied on to show up when it really counts.  Thursday night in the Blind Tiger was no exception.  The crowd was full for a Thursday night, incredibly receptive and kind, and obviously had “come to get down.”  Josh fidgets with microphone, offers a warm greeting to the crowd, and Greensboro’s first ever Folk Festival show was under way.  The Folk Festival began with a spirited “Be For You,” and followed that with John Hartford’s “Steam Powered Aeroplane.”  The crowd swayed in anticipation and excitement, and Josh banters with the crowd throughout the body of the first set.  The set was peppered with some of Phillips’ originals, the occasional cover song (a spirited “Don’t Let Me Down” by the Beatles was particularly noteworthy), and found the crowd singing along to “Morning Song,” laughing with one another and enjoying a great night at the Blind Tiger.  Josh announces that it is guitarist Rob Russell’s birthday, and then announces that it is also the birthday of the infamous H.  Many of us pat H on the back, and offer warm birthday wishes.  The set closes with a flourish, and Phillips and crew take a quick 10 minute set break.

I was very impressed with the selections of the first set, and looked forward to more.  I have heard “Wicker” several times over the last year, and had heard some great renditions of songs like “Angelina,” “Morning Song,” and “Gabby” earlier that day, in preparing for the show and this review.  In listening to those archive recordings, I was particularly impressed with Casey Cramer’s smoldering guitar, and his chops were on display Thursday night.  Debrissa McKinney (of Deep Pocket) had traveled for the night’s show and her vocal style nicely complemented Josh’s delivery.  Rounding out the Folk Festival are Nik Hope on drums and vocals, Rob Russell on guitar, Sean Donnelly on keys and vocals, and Elijah Cramer on bass.  The group of musicians that Josh has assembled for the Folk Festival has great, comfortable chemistry on stage, and that was clearly evident during the Greensboro show.

The band returns for the second set and delivers more excellent renditions of several Phillips’ classics.  Keith Allen, a fabulous guitar from Greensboro’s own The Mantras, sat in for two songs, and delivered an excellent dose of guitar prowess.  Keith and Josh look very similar, so jokes were made about the two serving as each other’s “body doubles.”  The Folk Festival delivers an excellent “All Night Long,” and soon thereafter Josh claims that they “have one left.”  They play “It Ain’t Easy,” which is a crowd favorite, and a tune I had particularly hoped to hear.  The playing of this song takes me back in time, and I remember an after party from a couple of years ago.  A hazy, hangover-inducing night had merged into the unforgiving clarity of morning.  Josh was sitting on the floor of Wayne Murray’s living room, and he started playing this song by himself, picking wistfully on guitar.  That memory had stuck with me over the years, so I was tickled to hear the song again.  After claiming to be done, the crowd asks for more, and the Folk Festival played three more songs to close the show.  Well done.

In reviewing the night as a whole, I will say that I am impressed by Phillips’ emergence with this new band.  The Folk Festival captures that silky, smooth sound that differentiates Phillips from the rest of the musical fray.  His songs are soulful, real, and remind me of my humanity.  In those songs I have found many kernels of hard-earned wisdom, but have also found reminders of the beauty of life.  That duality, coupled with Phillips’ excellent showmanship, proves that there is much to be discovered in the tunes of the Folk Festival.  I heartily recommend the experience to anyone.

-    J. Evan Wade

-    Writer’ Note:  I would encourage anyone who feels inclined to do so to cast a vote for the Folk Festival at