Sam Phillips

Music Reviews Sam Phillips
Sam Phillips

Walking into the Silverlake Lounge, a nondescript little club off Sunset Boulevard that hosts Latino drag-queen shows on the weekend, the first thing you notice is the word “Salvation.” Spelled out in metal block letters above the postage-stamp-sized stage and outlined in white lights, it evokes the feeling of attending church in a sideshow tent, the sacred bumping elbows with the secular—in other words, the perfect place to see Sam Phillips.

A diminutive blonde woman walks up to the center microphone and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Sam Phillips!” Of course, this is Phillips, standing alone under a spotlight with a half smile. She looks like she’s about to tell us a secret, and after the applause dies down she does, launching into a haunting a capella rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Foolin’ Myself.” It’s a sad song about trying to convince yourself you’re over someone you loved, a variation on one of themes of Phillips’ last album, A Boot and a Shoe. Fans are aware Phillips and her husband/producer, T-Bone Burnett, divorced last year, and she hasn’t made a secret of her broken heart.

As I watch her perform, I realize Phillips is the kind of artist that a CD can’t quite do justice. She sings like someone who’s experienced more than most, with that un-nameable quality that is to recorded media what a dog whistle is to the human ear. There are dark allies and smoke in her voice, and dozens of other things, too—empty bars, silk, mystery, dreams. During her set, she spins tales of foreign worlds, songs like short films. Phillips and her three-piece band pulled songs from her last two albums as the night wore on, gracing us with the cryptic yet confessional “How to Quit,” “Taking Pictures” and “Soul Eclipse;” the delicate “I Dreamed I Stopped Dreaming” and “Reflecting Light;” slow-shuffle-with-a-punch-line “I Wanted to be Alone.” She also played a couple new songs, including the breathtaking, urgent “When You’re Down,” which finds her still shining a flashlight into life’s darker places.

“When you’re down, when you’re down, you find out what’s down there …”

At one point, Phillips holds a tiny tape recorder up to the microphone and pushes play. The crackling, distorted track to “Incinerator” starts, the sound of an old phonograph drifting from an open window down the street. It’s just about as low-tech as you can get in this ProTools era, but the effect made a sexy song sound even sexier.

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