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Story and photos by Andy ArgyrakisTo a certain extent, producer T Bone Burnett has defined the musical side of Sam Phillips across her last six studio CDs, though come 2008, his inspiration has subtly shifted to the troubadour's songwriting side. Though the one time husband/wife completed their artistic obligations on 2004's A Boot and a Shoe, it wrapped amidst a divorce, which despite shaking out fairly amicably, unavoidably shifted the pair's chemistry. Now four years down the road on Don't Do Anything (Nonesuch), Phillips has taken up the production reigns all by herself and often alludes to the couple's crossroads within her storytelling.
Throughout her second of two shows in Chicago to kick off this fall's tour, the headliner addressed all the gossip without going overboard, admitting a lot of the songs were "lovelorn, but not bitter I hope" and suggesting if that darker side continued, "I'll never make it on 'American Idol.'" Of course, Phillips has never leaned all that close towards the mainstream dial and she's clearly better off sticking to a more unconventional blend of folk and indie pop wrapped around eclectic instrumentation. Take for instance the new disc's title track (a haunting ballad that appeared extremely cathartic for the entertainer) or "My Career In Chemistry" (loaded with double guitar distortion and the most militant drums fills of the 90-minute performance), both of which were impossible to pigeonhole, but still decidedly Phillips.
Even though she remains grounded in a personally gratifying creative compass, her current catalogue still boasts the general audience appeal of "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us," a personally penned and utterly gorgeous acoustic ballad that ironically found its way onto the Burnett produced Robert Plant & Alison Krauss album Raising Sand. Though a solo rendition of the sputtering "Animals On Wheels" appeared as a stark contrast, it was even more ingenious when stacked against backing tracks from an old cassette recorder that Phillips frantically waved near the microphone stand in all its low-fi charm.
Despite some of her in between song transitions appearing a bit sluggish and disorganized, the tunesmith collected her thoughts fairly eloquently when it came to politics, simply observing she's never noticed a more divided time between the blue and the red, but hoping for change no matter who gets elected. On a much lighter note prior to the poetic "Reflecting Light," she announced it would be her pseudo-last song, but rather than leaving for an encore, promised two more tunes were on the way. After earning hearty howls for "One Day Late" and "Watching Out of This World," the evening was officially over, but Phillips more than proved her personal emancipation and artistic innovation, even if it's just a one woman production in the studio these days.
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