In The Basement Bars: Grant-Lee Phillips, The Turning Point, And Looking For What’s Real In An Age Of Artifice

With a few notable exceptions, I gave up on going to concerts at the Enormodome back in the early 1990s. Sitting directly in front of the stage at a tiny local venue called The Turning Point, blues legend Buddy Guy handed me his glass of brandy and asked me if I could hold it while he tuned up. Suddenly the idea of sitting in Row Y Bother at Giants Stadium, watching a concert on gigantic televisions, no longer really appealed to me.

That memory came back to me the other night when I was talking with singer/songwriter/troubadour Grant-Lee Phillips after a stellar, loose set at that very same Turning Point. He took the stage looking a little discombobulated after not enough sleep the night before and immediately started joking with audience before launching into four straight unreleased songs, all of which were excellent. From there the rest of the show was a mix of songs spanning his days as the leader of alt-rock cult legends Grant Lee Buffalo through his latest, lovely, acoustic album Walking In The Green Corn. Throughout the night he joked with the crowd, invited a truly embarrassed waitress onto the stage to sing “Happy Birthday” to her, took requests, and played one extraordinarily good song after another with passion and humor. After the show he greeted everyone personally, sold a bunch of CDs, launched into an impromptu Tom Jones impersonation, shook hands, and thanked everyone for their support and for coming that night.

I don’t know whether he was disappointed with the size of the crowd, or the venue. The Turning Point is a very small place in the basement of a restaurant, and it was only two-thirds full. Phillips has trod some of the biggest stages in the world, when Grant-Lee Buffalo was opening for R.E.M. and the Smashing Pumpkins during the heyday of the alternative rock explosion. But though the crowd was small, it was warmly appreciative. They were all clearly fans, which Phillips noted from the stage after hearing the breadth of requests being shouted, thanking the crowd for being there with him throughout his career.

I often wonder why an artist such as Phillips, who has received raves from critics and his fellow artists, who has released one strong album after another, is playing The Turning Point while Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are playing to tens of thousands of people per night and having their faces and music splashed all over television and Entertainment Tonight. I don’t know whether Phillips cares about any of that. He certainly shouldn’t. He’s played the giant stages. He’s collaborated with legendary rockers like Michael Stipe and Robyn Hitchcock, among many others. He’s been voted “Male Vocalist of the Year” by the critics at Rolling Stone magazine. He has no reason (except maybe financial) to worry about how many people he’s playing to now. He’s been there, done that, and probably owns the T-shirt. He should feel very secure in the art he’s been creating for over 20 years; it’s extraordinarily (and consistently) good. He’s never released a bad album, and for me Grant Lee Buffalo’s Mighty Joe Moon ranks near the top of the best of the 1990s alternative rock scene. Though I’ve quibbled with the running order and hushed tones of some of his solo albums, I’d be hard pressed to think of a bad song he’s released.

You need to go back to the Beatles to find a time when the best artists were also the most successful in terms of sales, concerts, and radio. Since then, while there have certainly been many great and successful artists, much of the most interesting music has bubbled under the surface. It’s being played in the basement bars like The Turning Point and on the few remaining independent radio stations. The underground has always been there. It’s where you find Arthur Lee hobnobbing with the Velvet Underground, where the MC5 and New York Dolls engage with Richard Thompson and The Minutemen, and where Big Star and The Replacements blend seamlessly. It’s where real people are making real music for real reasons. It’s where a man with the songs, a guitar, and a voice can move the souls of an audience through the sheer power of music in ways that even great artists are incapable of doing when the audience is too large and too remote. That’s the message of Grant-Lee Phillips’s performance at The Turning Point. It’s a venue that holds, at most, about a hundred people, but legends have stood on that tiny wooden stage. Some of these legends had achieved enormous levels of fame and, presumably, money. The Kinks’ Dave Davies gave one of the best shows I’ve ever seen there. Blues masters like Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, Mick Taylor, and John Mayall have played there. Richard Thompson, Lonnie Mack, Leslie West, Robbie Krieger, Roger McGuinn, Levon Helm, Eric Burdon, Rick Danko, Dr. John, Ronnie Spector and many others have played there. It’s also been the home base for local bands like Joe D’Urso and Stone Caravan and Finn and The Sharks.

Whether it’s former superstars whose days of playing Madison Square Garden or Woodstock are behind them, or artists who have never and, likely, will never achieve those levels of stardom, it is in basement bars like The Turning Point where you can still find the real thing at a time when the culture is preoccupied with what cuts of beef Lady Gaga is wearing tonight or what deity Kanye West is comparing himself to.

In some ways, it’s too bad that a songwriter and singer the caliber of Grant-Lee Phillips doesn’t reach huge audiences. His music is excellent, his lyrics are as good or better than far more popular wordsmiths (Bruce Springsteen comes to mind), he’s a very good guitarist, and he’s got the voice of a wicked angel. He should be reaching a mass audience. If my opinion means anything to anybody out there, go now, do not stop, and buy Mighty Joe Moon. It will open doors, and you will hear what Mumford and Sons, Of Mountains and Men, and The Lumineers wish they sounded like. From the righteous fury of “Lone Star Song” through the plaintive beauty of “Rock Of Ages” you’ll hear the lineage of The Band and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music put through an alt-rock ringer. And when it has sunk in, go buy everything else. You won’t be disappointed.

It isn’t fame, fortune, or induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that matter. It’s not about how many paparazzi are chasing you down the street. What matters is the music and how it connects to your heart, how it moves your soul, how it lifts you up. It’s getting harder to find the good and the true in this age of artifice, when we’re bombarded with the cult of celebrity, as if fame is the equivalent of accomplishment. But it is there. It’s in the basement bars of America like the Turning Point, and Grant-Lee Phillips is a shining example of a talent that burns brightly even when few are around to hear it. Long may he play.

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