Radical folkie Utah Phillips departs for the great union hall in the sky.
By Garrett Wheeler
An Era Passes R.I.P. "The golden voice of the great Southwest" may be gone, but Utah Phillips won't soon be forgotten. Maybe it was his lifelong affiliation with the Industrial Workers of the World, or "Wobblies"--the idealistic worldwide union of workers--that will serve his lasting memory. Or it could be it his notorious fascination with anarchy and pacifism that will preserve his name. His younger fans will no doubt recall his two collaborative albums with Ani DiFranco, one of which was nominated for a Grammy. But above all, Utah Phillips will be remembered best for his music.
When Phillips passed away late last month, the 73-year-old folk singer, songwriter and activist left behind a legacy so expansive he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Folk Alliance in 1997 (past recipients of the award include Woody Guthrie and Earl Scruggs). His songs have been recorded by Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, Tom Waits, Waylon Jennings and Arlo Guthrie, to name a few. In the late 1990s, bluegrass duo Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin were inspired to record a full-length tribute album, Heart Songs: The Old Time Country Songs of Utah Phillips. The record was nominated for a Grammy in 1997--not bad for a guy who ran for president as an anarchist in 1976, was a hard-drinking railroad tramp for years and fought in the Korean War.
"He was a real storyteller in his performances," DiFranco recently told the Washington Post. "He was just a catalogue of people's history in the United States. He was so engaging on many, many levels." No doubt Phillips is thumbing his suspenders somewhere upstairs, telling tales of the American life below.
The Santa Cruz scene continued in all its vibrancy this week at the Crepe Place, with a neobluegrass show headlined by the Down Beets. The local yokels picked and plugged their way through a late-night jam sesh, led by the dynamic Sheila Golden on vocals, guitar and banjo. Her band mates--bassist Mike Luke, mandolin man Jeremy Lampel and guitarist Kasey Scott--provided a foot-stompin' backdrop for Golden's crooning vocals, while a lively audience danced and drank like any good crowd does. Opening the night's entertainment was San Francisco's own blue-ishgrass ensemble, the Deciders. Their rollicking brand of yee-haw was pretty traditional, at first listen. Then lyrics focusing on porn, pop-culture and other decidedly unconventional topics began to emerge, proving this rambunctious foursome has little in common with Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys.
Little Bit Country, Little Bit Rock & Roll
In the mood for some boot-shakin' of your own? There's plenty of twang around the corner, starting with the inimitable Junior Brown this Friday at the Rio Theatre. Brown's unique merge of rock & roll and roots country has won over skeptics of both genres, something few artists other than Elvis and Willie Nelson have managed to do. Country rock fans will have a tough decision to make this Friday, however, because while Brown boogies down at the Rio, Shooter Jennings will be twanging away at the Catalyst. I guess if you're really motivated and don't mind spending a little cash, you could catch the first half of one show and the second half of the other. Now that'd be a hoot, y'all.
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