Grant-Lee Phillips's old band, Grant Lee Buffalo, was a study in wasted potential. Too folksy and baroque for the alt-rock fray it was thrown into, the group collapsed in 1999, frustrated with a label that didn't know what it wanted besides better sales. The GLB story is often told as a cautionary tale about the evils majors do, but Phillips wasn't blameless himself. Grant Lee Buffalo was his show, and he's the one who stuffed its four records with vaudevillian flourishes and arch wordplay till the richness was all but suffocating. Unsurprisingly, his finest songs ("Fuzzy," "Mockingbirds," "Truly, Truly") sounded the least fussed over. Post-Buffalo, Phillips started over with a pair of one-man albums: a stripped-down, tossed-off debut followed by 2001's Mobilize, a likable flirtation between acoustic guitars and sequencers. But it seemed he was avoiding intimacy--not to mention other musicians--until the new Virginia Creeper (Zoe), where he seems more clearheaded, confident, and relaxed than he has in years. Backed by a band built around acoustic guitar, drums, and violin, Phillips paints portraits of sad, lovely ladies: "Mona Lisa," "Lily-a-Passion," "Calamity Jane," "Josephine of the Swamps." We've seen these types before: they're the women who populate the work of Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, and Stephen Foster. Phillips still doesn't belong in those ranks, but at least now he's playing like he thinks he's got a shot. Saturday, March 13, 11:30 PM, Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace; 773-478-4408.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Denise Siegel.