Edinburgh native Dean Owens, who supported Grant Lee Phillips, is a highly regarded singer songwriter whose album Into The Sea received glowing reviews when released in 2015 . A close friend of Phillips, his thirty minute set was the perfect opener for what was to follow. Not unfamiliar to all things Irish having toured here previously with The Mavericks and more recently with Sharon Shannon in Australia, he joked early in his set of been taken by surprise by the pin drop silence of the audience at Whelan’s, in total contrast to the rowdy Irish entourage that followed Shannon around Australia. To his credit the quality of his material and his confident and entertaining stage banter engaged the audience throughout, even managing to get them to sing the chorus on his final song. Highlights of his slot were the opening song Valentine’s Day In New York, written in a hotel room while spending some time in New York without his wife, the Ryan Adams sounding The Only One and Cotton Snow inspired by a visit to the Carter House in Tennessee where The Battle of Franklyn took place during the American Civil War and where ten thousand soldiers died during the five hour battle.
Grant Lee Phillips most recent album The Narrows, released some twelve months ago and his first recording since relocating to Nashville from California, matched the excellence of his early career recordings as Grant Lee Buffalo and much of this evenings show featured material from both ends of career to date. Interestingly, The Narrows and Fuzzy – released nearly twenty five years ago – both feature quite similar looping and atmospheric guitar playing together with his quite unique vocal range. It’s a great compliment to Phillips that this evenings performance, even though delivered solo, managed to recreate the power, quality and excitement of the material from both those albums in particular.
Kicking off with It Ain’t The Same Old Cold War Harry and One Morning, both from his 2009 album Little Moon, he pledges ‘to start the evening off nice and easy and end it up in a coma’ and over the following ninety certainly delivers a storming set ending the evening jacketless, bathed in sweat and elated.
For a creator of bittersweet and often doleful lyrics, Phillips himself is quite the contradiction on stage, upbeat, humorous and possessing the ability to effortlessly engage and enthral. Introducing One Morning he refers to his rural country childhood, open fields, cattle and roosters before joking "I heard you can buy washed and fresh roosters in the stores here and was scratching my head until someone told me we were talking about potatoes!"
Smoke and Sparks, Holy Irons and Taking On Weight in Hot Springs all from The Narrows follow, stripped back versions but all performed wonderfully. A similar pattern of playing a collection of songs from a particular album follows with two selections from Virginia Creeper, crowd favourite Mona Lisa and Josephine Of The Swamps, and three from Mighty Joe Moon, Honey Don’t Think, Happiness and the title track.
Explaining how his relationship and friendship with support artist Dean Owens started in California and continued in Nashville he invites Owens back on stage to join him on two covers, Gram Parsons Hickory Wind and Ramblin’ Man by Hank Williams, which features a striking guitar solo by Phillips.
The highlights of the evening however are probably his selections from the album Fuzzy. Phillip’s vocal delivery on Jupiter and Teardrop is stunning to say the least - soaring, dipping and echoing, aided by the excellent acoustics and engineered sound in the room. Audience requests are satisfied by two more from the same album, Stars ‘N’ Stripes’ and the title track Fuzzy, described by Phillips as his melodic nightmare, both bringing the house down.
The encore and closing track sees Owens back on stage taking the difficult chorus on a rousing Mockingbirds, with Phillips joking ‘you can sing the high notes, the ones I won’t reach having been travelling from London from 6am this morning’. It’s a fitting close what has been a wonderful evening by an artist who remains every bit as passionate, entertaining and committed nearly three decades in to his career.
Review and photography by Declan Culliton