Utah Phillips | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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UTAH PHILLIPS

Bruce "Utah" Phillips has a lot of material--his repertoire includes folk songs and union anthems, recycled vaudeville, and early-20th-century pop tunes as well as his own creations--but it's the way he weaves it all together that, in his words, "gaffs" his listeners and reels them in. His most recent CD, the two-year-old The Moscow Hold (Red House), is a leisurely, often riotously funny run through some of his most beloved routines, and it provides a revealing glimpse of the nuances of his craft. His monologues, punctuated by bouts of thump-strumming guitar and sometimes a wheezy harmonica, are a carefully seasoned mulligan stew of hobo slang, populist rhetoric, countrified vernacular, and incongruously erudite references; his cast of reprobates, wanderers, outlaws, and heroic proletarians is drawn with the antic precision of a Dickens or a Rabelais. His expletives, colloquial asides, and bons mots are inserted with a jazz drummer's deftness of timing (among his comic idols are protohipsters Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley), and he wears his irreverence like a badge, daring the "bad taste police" to take offense: one bit describes a Catholic church that offers "high-fiber, low-calorie communion wafers called I Can't Believe It's Not Jesus," while the album closes with a tune called "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum/How I Became a Buddhist." But beneath his hard-ass pose beats a heart of gold: his songs evoke the suffering and the dreams of the common folk with unapologetic tenderness, even sentimentality, and he doesn't reserve all of his compassion for the usual populist peanut gallery. On "Fly Away," an older original written for an abused girl who died in the hospital, he sings, "Fly away, little bird, there's no one left to scold you" in a rough a cappella croon that barely carries the melody but resonates with sorrowful outrage. Saturday, April 21, 7:30 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.

DAVID WHITEIS

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