What with his theatrical and family commitments it’d been a while since a Bristol audience had had the opportunity to see Phil King perform live, and pre-gig it was clear that the expectations were high. No doubt anticipating that, Phil made sure that the launch of the largely unheard new album The Wreckage was peppered with a judicious selection of crowd pleasing old faves – a mixture that worked the audience to perfection.
As a singer-songwriter Phil King has the whole trinity: a beautiful, soulful singing voice; deft skills at playing the guitar and the capacity to write elegantly worded and powerful songs. Seen live, his diffident charm could win over the grumpiest of crowds, so playing at home for the first gig of a 24 date tour he should have been pretty confident. Nonetheless the rasp of new strings made See Me Through a slightly shaky opener, head down in the spotlight, and it was only in the cover of A.A. Body’s I can See The Pines Are Dancing you could feel the ice melt and Phil King emerged from whatever hibernation it had been since last we met.
That number, and the anarchic defiance of Do Not Surrender which followed, unleashed the full band sound: a rich country-soul with rock flourishes in the 60s style, with Ruth Hammond’s Leslie-embellished organ a shrewd evocation of Garth Hudson in The Band’s heyday. Regular bassman Dave Johnston locked in with drummer Matt Jones to stick to the script, leaving Benji Bower to add atmospheric grand piano and James Forster – another blast from Bristol’s past – to rip it up on guitar. It’s a powerhouse of a band, solidly skilled musicians able to act with impeccable restraint to provide whatever fits the song. Throughout the gig Phil selected from these ingredients to reframe each song, thus North Star was a simple duet of Ruth’s piano and his own guitar, the sweetest of harmony vocals enriching the melody of the simple love ballad while The War I Can Never Win had a superb three-part acapella introduction. Poison Blue had something of Little Feat about it, especially the guitar-blazing cod-rock coda, while Gimme Some More’s stomping rockabilly 2-step was a pure blast of energy.
In contrast with the new album’s material, that track and others picked from Phil’s earlier albums had a more embedded feel, with Phil himself obviously freer to hurl himself into the lyrics with abandon. That said The Wreckage provided some of the evening’s highlights, with the Dylanesque motivational anthem Stronger and sweetly soulful regret of I Wonder if I’ll ever Learn sounding like instant classics. The title track itself had a lovely sonic texture, Dave Johnston’s fat-toned bass mixed with Ruth’s haunting accordion and Phil’s country blues guitar adding a mournful hue to the song’s reflective lyrics. A recurrent theme of the songs was a kind of redemption after disaster, an optimism that even though we can fail and things can fall apart there is something to hope for that will see us through. It’s an anti-miserabilist stance borne of mature reflection rather than dumb positivism and that makes it believable, that and Phil’s endearing sincerity. Small wonder there was such a queue for signed copies of the album afterwards: they should try and bottle it for the NHS.
After so long a gap it was refreshing to see that not only has Phil King still got that sparkle that has always made him stand out among singer/songwriters but also he’s learning as he moves through life, reporting as he goes. It surely would only need one established ‘name’ to cover one of his songs and the world would be knocking at his door?