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[whitespace] Radical Chic

The music and storytelling of Utah Phillips isn't glitzy, just focus-group tested among people who work for a living

By David Espinoza

THE SOUND of crickets and the crackling of a campfire were absent from the Kuumbwa stage Nov. 27, though the man performing on it came very close to fooling me into thinking otherwise. Utah Phillips, revolutionary hobo poet, singer/songwriter extraordinare, was at it again, cookin' up fascinating stories of life lessons, friends who've passed on and labor history.

It was the kind of experience one could expect to have with a seasoned campfire master of ceremonies, someone who's perfected the art of storytelling, laced with witty puns and amusing anecdotes. Of course entertaining tourists at a national park is probably the last place you'd find Phillips, whose radical politics would quickly scare off the average shmoe. Rather, he's the kind of guy who would sell out Kuumbwa or get stoned at a GOP convention.

Physically, Phillips resembles a country Santa Claus, complete with potbelly, long white beard, light-blue overalls, red-checkered flannel and cowboy hat. Politically, the always forthright Phillips can be as ornery as George Carlin minus the dirty jokes and as wise as historian Howard Zinn. At the beginning of his hour-and-half-long set, Phillips dedicated his first rant to the year 2000 obsession, which he described as ridiculous since only four-fifths of the world's population follow Western time. From there, Phillips touched on everything from gender roles ("It's only a weewee") to anarchy and the Spanish Civil War.

The majority of the night, however, revolved around Phillips' best talent: storytelling. True to the saying "That which is remembered lives on," Phillips paints pictures of people he's met throughout the better half of this century so that you never forget them. Unlike some folk artists who can often be a little too serious, Phillips presents characters with memorable humor. Like the uncompromising Catholic-pacifist-anarchist who wrote a book about his favorite revolutionaries but left the living ones out since they could still disappoint him--"If you gotta have heroes," he sang, "make sure they're dead so they don't blow it." Or the ex-union organizer who would raise money for causes by selling absurd signs that read, "A bird in the hand isn't worth much if you have to blow your nose."

Protest songs, little ditties and traditional folk stylings--Phillips brought it all together, giving the audience an authentic slice of Americana pie, the stuff that's left out of the textbooks.

What Is a Melee?

The flier for the What Is Art? benefit show commemorating its last days at the north Pacific Ave. location read "Save What?"--a bit misleading considering the place is going to be torn down regardless. No matter, it's always good to go out with a bang, and Friday and Saturday promises to be the grand finale of WIA benefits. Each night will showcase an all-star lineup of past WIA supporters like Eli Salzman, Christopher St. James and Debbie Holt. Even acoustic guitar experimentalist Paul Sprawl returns to town to perform. Showtime is 8pm.

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From the December 1-8, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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