Utah Phillips Tribute: The Long Memory
Artists: Misner and Smith, Erin English, Nell Robinson, Larry Hanks, Jim Nunally, Joe Stevens, Duncan Phillips
A reverent group of mostly California-based musicians, led by his son Duncan, paid loving tribute to the work of the legendary activist-poet-storyteller and songwriter Utah Phillips at the Freight and Salvage Coffee House this week. Utah, who passed in 2008, sang of unions, laborers and traveling the railroad, and was committed to the idea of the “long memory,” the “connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going, but where we want to go.” An homage to Phillips’s tireless work as a believer in the power of song to educate and instigate, entertain and enlighten, the show — the first in a three-city run to further “The Long Memory Project” — played out as equal parts song circle, concert, and lesson in American history.
Duncan’s relatively recent dedication to performing music — he first picked up the guitar after his father passed — is as much a tribute to his father’s songbook as it is a personal catharsis for a son whose father’s dedication to musically-driven activism routinely took him away from his family over a 40-year career. Playing while seating, swapping songs in-the-round along with banjo players Erin English and Joe Stevens (formerly of Coyote Grace), Duncan set a homespun tone for an evening which was as much about preserving Utah’s body of work as carrying forward the tradition of writing socially-conscious and politically aware songs. Utah’s canon is testament to the ability to find solace and shelter in song, and fittingly Duncan opened the show with a faithful rendition of “The Telling Takes Me Home”:
Let me sing to you all those songs I know
Of the wild, windy places locked in timeless snow,
And the wide, crimson deserts where the muddy rivers flow.
It’s sad, but the telling takes me home.
After a poignant version of “Starlight on the Rails,” English, who is as committed to social justice and environmental causes and her artful banjo playing, shared a song influenced both by her time working in Madagascar and the words of Buddhist teacher author Thich Nat Hanh. Admitting he first learned of Phillips through Utah protégé/champion Ani Difranco, Stevens played her “Subdivision,” a timely treatise on racial divisions.
The second half of the program featured duo performances by those who knew Utah personally — the deep voiced Larry Hanks in duet with Deborah Robins on “Old Dolores” and “All Used Up” — and those similarly penning songs and poetry steeped in family legacies shaped by landscape and toil — sweet-voiced Nell Robinson and flatpicker Jim Nunally singing of orphans and hillbillies, soil and soul.
Another highlight of the evening was contemporary folk duo Misner and Smith, whose performance served as a tutorial in carrying Utah’s carefully tended song-and-story- tradition confidently into the future. Trading vocals, they led off their set with a shimmering version of Phillip’s “Miner’s Lullaby,” followed by several songs from their acclaimed “Seven-Hour Storm.” The lyrics of the title track could easily have been torn from the Phillips songbook:
Seems I’m lost again,
I’ve curved my share of corners
And I’m back to where this winding trail began.
So I’ll push ahead
And chase that flickering lantern
That circles ‘round my island now and then.