By Mark Guarino
It takes a songwriter like Sam Philips to remove pop music from the routine expectations set by the last 50-plus years and take it on a road trip. Kicking off a fall four Saturday in Chicago at the Old Town School of Folk Music, her music detoured into German cabaret, French chansons and a waltz, as well as lightly tracing elements of American gospel and blues.
In the world of adult popcraft, Phillip is cherished for taking the long way. The Saturday show, the first of two sold-out nights, illustrated that point. Even though her career has stretched across 24 years and traveled down so many different paths (her earliest records were as a Christian folk artist), her best work sounds elusive, but deeply personal.
The 20-song, hour and 15-minute show was an exercise in sensitive dynamics that kept the songs gripping a tightwire. Her three-member band assembled instruments that looked like they were dragged from the attic but gave the music an old-timey feeling. That included the stroh violin, an early twentieth century fiddle attached to a metal volume horn that, when played, had the otherworldly drone of a sitar.
The band physicalized each emotion through precisely chosen gestures that were right on the money. Drummer Jay Bellerose assembled a drumkit of found objects, starting with the marching band drum he used for bass kick. On “The Fan Dance,” he shook beads, struck wood with a mallet and smacked his ankle with a children’s toy snare. There was a sort of beauty to how delicately each sound was created.
Phillips is best appreciated as a follower of the Beatles’ most elusive, but less appreciated songbook. (Less “Help!” and more “Norwegian Wood.”) Dressed in black and as still as a statue, she let the music take center stage, even though the slight melodies were just as coy.
The jokes required a closer listen. On “Animals on Wheels,” she accompanied her voice with a handheld tape recorder playing a scratchy recording of a piano. During music breaks, she shook it and the music wiggled.
One song she said she wrote in 1927, while another she deadpanned, saying, “that’s the one I’m planning to sing on ‘American Idol’.” She seemed so sincere, the possibilities of both did not seem that unreasonable.