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Music Reviews

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June 15, 1994

The Indescribable Wow

Martinis and BikinisSam Phillips Concert -- Last week I joined 1,800 other fans for the sold-out Sam Phillips/Counting Crows concert at Wilson Theater. Probably 25% of the audience was under 18, and there were some 14 and 15 year-olds in attendance. In an amazing change from prior years (and proof that the new prohibition has taken hold), no alcohol was served, and nobody in the audience was smoking anything (save a handful of cigarette-smoking renegades).

This is a far cry from the concert-going atmosphere of a few years back when alcohol flowed freely and a thick blue haze engulfed the concert floor. Considering these clean-living standards, there's no harm in letting teenage kids attend a concert (even unchaperoned). PARENTS, LET YOUR CHILDREN ATTEND CONCERTS!

The Counting Crows have a good thing going, and they know it. Despite their relative youth, they're a very competent band, and have written a number of songs that touch a younger audience. The audience was well familiar with the material, and many had purchased a copy of their debut release, August...And Everything After.

While the standout single on the disc, "Mr. Jones," didn't come across as well live as it does on the album, other cuts from the album, such as "Round Here" and "Ghost Town," fared very well in concert. If I were Geffen Records, I'd put these guys back in the studio straight away to record a follow-up album -- with another hit single, the Counting Crows could be huge.

Martinis and BikinisNow, for Sam Phillips. While her new album, Martinis & Bikinis, is among the year's best, her stage presence leaves a little to be desired. No matter what Mr. Mayhew may think, Sam is no "coquette" -- more accurately, she's an anti-pop star (ala Natalie Merchant from a few years back).

With a crack four-piece band led by her husband, T-Bone Burnett, on guitar (and T-Bone clearly has the ability to control a band), Sam put on a splendid 45-minute show that featured tracks from the new album, together with a few older favorites, including "The Turning," a song she recorded at the end of her affiliation with the Christian label, Myrrh Records.

I doubt that half the people in the audience knew who Sam was before she hit the stage, and probably not one in ten recognized the significance of T-Bone (who is one of the hottest producers in the business). At the start of her show, Sam seemed nearly disdainful of her audience, and almost dared them to project their own expectations on to her (Is she a sex goddess? Is she a bitch? Is she just another drugged out rock-and-roll singer?).

Sam PhillipsAfter a while, Sam lightened up when she realized the audience was not just a bunch of hormone-crazed cowboys. Indeed, by the end of her show, Sam and the audience had greatly warmed to each other; the audience appreciated her genuine talents, and Sam seemed less afraid of being a pop star.

After the set, a group of us (courtesy of Sam's gracious label, Virgin Records) had the pleasure of chatting backstage with Sam. During our freewheeling discussion, we learned a number of things. First, Sam is witty and wise -- she's very astute about the music industry, and refuses to allow herself to be controlled by any outside forces.

Sam met T-Bone while she was recording her first record for Virgin; she says the chemistry between them was immediate, although she acknowledges that T-Bone has a "crazy side." She takes her marriage seriously, but admits that the long periods of separation (they do not always tour or work together) can be difficult.

Concerning her split from the contemporary Christian music scene, Sam says that she just couldn't take the dogma any more -- she wanted to make music, not a statement. Feeling constricted by the religious right, Sam elected to go her own way. When asked about the album cover, Sam hedged as to whether it has any particular meaning; however, she reported that the people under the bed stayed there for over an hour for the photo shoot.

Cruel InventionsAs to other artists, Sam likes the new album from Michael Petak (soon to be released on Slash) a lot; she also has high regard for P. J. Harvey. Sam also has kind words to say about Marti Jones, another idiosyncratic pop singer who is married to a renowned producer (Marti's husband is Don Dixon). Sam says that the reason we haven't heard from Marti for a while is that Marti and Don had a child; no word, however, if Sam and T-Bone plan to start a family.

Although Sam felt that the moshers during her set (and, honestly, anybody who moshes during a Sam Phillips gig is a moron) were "cute -- kind of like gypsy moshers," other members of the audience didn't agree. There's no reason for a group of six or eight underdeveloped teenage idiots to be allowed to spoil everybody else's concert-going pleasure.

Nobody enjoyed this confrontational dancing (which, fortunately, wasn't fueled by alcohol -- there's no doubt that this stuff hurts a lot more when you're not loaded), and the crowd made determined efforts to curb this anti-social behavior (which was limited to a handful of white teenage male knuckleheads). Eventually, the security forces removed a couple of the troublemakers from the crowd, and were applauded for their efforts.

Throughout our discussion (which ended when the Counting Crows took the stage), Sam was warm, friendly, and engaging. When asked why she declined to perform "Strawberry Road" during the show (even though this song is probably the best cut on the new disc), Sam said the band wasn't ready to play the number live. Too bad -- if Sam pushed her pop side a little more, she'd sell a lot more records.

Indescribable WowFinally, we asked about her perception of herself, and whether she viewed herself as any kind of role model; Sam declined to answer. On the one hand, I can sympathize with her; having experienced the cult of personality with Myrrh Records, it's understandable why she demurs to a role model.

On the other hand, considering the attention given to her by the ladies in the audience, it's clear that Sam is a role model, as she proves that a woman can survive (quite nicely, thank you) in the world of pop music based on brains and articulateness; there's no need to rely on T&A or a "ghetto ho" attitude to make it in the business. Many in the audience greatly respected this attitude, and it's something that Sam needs to be aware of -- whether or not she views herself up as a role model, she is one.

-- Randy Krbechek

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