"An Evening with PHOX"


By Peter Horn | @PeterCHorn

On Tuesday, April 14th, concertgoers at The Great American Music Hall were treated to an intimate evening with PHOX- an evening in which guitars were played with the trunk of a stage-prop plant, banana-shaped maracas provided a festive backbeat and the crowd joined in to serenade the lead-singer’s mother via cell phone with a foggy rendition of Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco.”

The sextet that walked onstage looked more like an assigned school project group than a band that’s held captive crowds of 20,000-plus: a skinny redhead wearing a safari hat, a chubby bespectacled keyboardist with a pencil-thin hair part, the clean-cut jock on lead guitar who can only stay until football practice starts and the obligatory guy wearing flip flops over socks that no one trusts to take the project home. The motley crue consists of six childhood best friends for whom nothing is off limits; the chemistry and trust among the bandmates is on constant display, not just when they’re shouting inside jokes to each other across stage.

In between songs, the stage banter had a beer-soaked college basement feel, their candor at times refreshing (“Coachella sucks… lots of sexy people but everyone looks the same and the sun is disorienting… but I like San Francisco.”), at times bordering on cringeworthy (“Matthew waxed his butt for this show… his girlfriend’s here!”). But when the lights dimmed, the six-piece outfit from Baraboo, Wisconsin—that sleepy town northwest of Madison that of course you’ve never heard of—buttoned it up. Standing beneath the vintage parlor-lit PHOX lettering, the group shared with the crowded room their genre-agnostic sound: at times folky, at times poppy, at all times soulful.

Midway through the evening, the band moved to the center of the stage where they huddled for an acoustic set, a nod to the crowded dining room of their shared house that doubles as a rehearsal venue, “because everyone knows musicians don’t have enough money to eat in their dining rooms.” And with just a guitar, a banjo and the ubiquitous banana maraca behind her, Monica Martin’s voice took the stage: a smoky, reverb-laden performance that silenced any suspicions of novelty with a range spanning the lows and highs of a bass drum and a fork on crystal glass. With one hand holding a fistful of her signature black curls, she led us through acoustic renditions of “1936,” “Kingfisher,” and “Evil” from PHOX’s eponymous first album, the crowd for a moment forgetting why they even bother plugging in.

But it was in the strangely beautiful cover of Blink 182’s “I Miss You” that the genre-transcendent potential of her voice became clear, as she took a vapid punk ballad, stripped it down and carefully dressed it in silky reverb to create a haunting folk melody that barely resembled the original. Martin’s voice has an unmistakable air of nostalgia, adding a layer of somber gravel to even their most spit-shined songs, the kind of voice that could sing you happy birthday and leave you staring off into the distance, pondering the ephemerality of time.

Unlike her sock and flip-flopped bandmate, Monica (or “Oprah” as she introduced herself) does look the part—tall, with a head of hair that could solicit volumizing tips from Macy Gray—but she doesn’t quite act it, at one point reflecting on their tour, “It’s not what I thought I’d be doing, but then again I didn’t have many thoughts.” And it’s comments such as this that remind us of the simplicity of what we’re witnessing: six really good friends who really enjoy playing music together. Who just happen to be really good at it.

“Let the Words do the Talking” – Andrew Blair Unveils His New Band, “We Became Owls”

(Photo by CarrieRichards.com)

(Photo by CarrieRichards.com)

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com

At one of Andrew Blair’s recent shows, I made the mistake of inquiring how he goes about marketing his passion project. I should have know better, I suppose, but I went ahead and asked anyway. The look I received in return was one of honest apathy. One of those “Are you kidding me man? I just want to make my music and hopefully enough people will listen to it so I can make more” kind of looks.

Now, more than ever perhaps, artists like Andrew cringe when the subject of marketing is breached in relation to their work. The proverbial mountain of musical prominence has never been taller, and the trail toward the top has never been steeper or more crowded. Getting people to sit down and listen to your album above the din of Pandora, Spotify and the rest has never been tougher, and the idea of a consumer paying for their music is almost considered obsolete.

Yet despite all the obstacles laid down in front of creative types these days, the beat continues to go on, no matter how hard record deals are to come by.

On March 3rd, 2011, I found myself seeking shelter from the Polk Street Drunken Storm, when I poked my head inside the Red Devil Lounge. Andrew Blair was on stage with his childhood buddy Ross Warner, Blue Ribbon Beer was steadily flowing, and the crowd was hearty by folk-indie-bluegrass standards.

I’m no professional music critic, but judging by the undivided attention paid by the smartphone carrying crowd, it was clear Blair and Warner were onto something. The sound had feeling, depth, complexity, and the lyrics were clear, compelling, thought provoking. It wasn’t Bob Dylan in the Greenwich Village in 1962, but it was most definitely Andrew Blair at the Red Devil Lounge in 2011.

Fast forward to 2012 and I (shamefully) still haven’t paid a dime for Andrew Blair’s music. I probably should have by now, especially when one considers how much time I’ve spent soaking in the lyrics of “Live at Red Devil Lounge”. The 12 song album is chock full of ballads that challenge the listener to follow along with the poignant lyrics while letting one’s mind wander among an array of folksy sounds. If my iPhone’s ever-dying battery could be traced back to a particular culprit, streaming “Live at Red Devil Lounge” would most definitely be it.

I may never be able to fully recreate that spring San Franciscan night, but this live album certainly gives justice to the live version. Between-song banter by Blair including comments such as, “It’s like a giant living room in here.” “Good enough for government work.” And a sarcastic “Oh yeah, we have all kinds of merch in the back,” seem to add a degree of realism to an already real collection of songs.

In “Anchor”, the second song on “Live at Red Devil Lounge”, Blair carries out an acoustically riveting 70 second instrumental before the first lyric is uttered. Then the lyrics take hold and the acoustics mesh beautifully with Warner in the background and Blair’s vocals at the forefront.

“Pack the glances in the mirror in a suitcase tight
blowing smoke rings under water as the heat sits still
look hard at the ones who left, and the ones who will
grab an anchor and leap overboard, but do it right
this empty ship is sinking, hold on tight,
a long hard night…”

“The Lost and I” is my favorite track on the album, even if Blair forgets the words in the middle of the song. He hums the forgotten verse more than adequately, wrapping it up with, “The words. Have lost. Me.” The song is upbeat throughout, arguably the most jovial on the album. This doesn’t stop Blair from lamenting toward the end of the track.

“For the last two weeks I’ve had strangers say to me, ‘Hey you look tired.’
I stare down at my feet, fold my tongue and barely squeak, ‘Well maybe so.’”

“Mask” again highlights Blair’s talent as a singer-songwriter. A favorite of the Red Devil crowd, the song opens with the harmonica, a harmonica that stays relevant throughout the heartfelt song. Blair extends his vocal range toward the end of the song, drawing a well deserved uproar in applause from the Polk Street Faithful.

“She sat back down, and brought her eyes, to the bar
Condensation drips down the glass
Oh dear god I felt like I’d come so far
Conversations happen so fast”
“And then I stumbled, and brought my hand down in the sun
My stomach grumbled, and a fire began to burn
It burned along the wall, I’d built up so tall
Douse that fire with black cats and kerosene
You laugh, but you all know exactly what I mean.”

Other songs on “Live at Red Devil Lounge” that leave a lasting impression include “Animal”, “Tampa to Tulsa”, and “Cry a Lake”. All three bring original sounds and memorable lyrics. Says Blair in “Cry a Lake”, a song written by friend Adam Yas,

“You’re never gonna believe, my self-fulfilling prophecy
I dream that it happens and it does
I’m on my last four legs, not breathin’ but I’m your friend”

Blair’s songwriting prowess revealed on “Live at Red Devil Lounge” successfully laid the groundwork for his new musical venture, a band called “We Became Owls”. Still accompanied by Ross Warner ( a multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire who plays the mandolin, accordion, harmonica, lap steel guitar, electric guitar), the pair have added a collection of musical talent to create a more dynamic sound. Robin Ward (cello), Scott Manke (banjo, dobro, percussion), Sigal Sahar (stand up bass), and Katie Schlesinger (piano, banjo, vocals) have all hopped on board and will be rotating their talents onto the stage for “We Became Owls”.

Their first EP features old favorites “The Lost and I” and “Please Surrender” coupled with new songs:“Suitcase” and “I’m Done”. Illustrated perfectly by the ending of “I’m Done”, the added instrumentations and musical talent on stage give Blair his fullest sound yet.

An Oakland resident and avid A’s fan, Blair hopes 2012 still has some magic left to propel his latest project, and what will hopefully be an indefinite musical journey. He may not be capable of strategically marketing you to death, but he’ll be making the rounds of trusted Bay Area music venues, offering up his sounds and stories for less than an arm and a leg. Do yourself a favor and get out to see the poetry in motion. The Revolution will not be televised.

(Click here to see upcoming show dates and venues)