music

Firefly Light: Small Flames Burn It All

:::
am i your pussycat?
i know what’s new
it’s the oldest hat in the book
we can’t get fast enough to go backwards
to take a second look

~ Animals on WheelsSam Phillips
:::

On Monday, June 21st, Zoey and i went to see Sam Phillips in concert with Eszter Balint at The Ram’s Head in Annapolis. It was a warm night and we donned our best red and black clothing. i even dragged out the leather pants and the wavy hair for the evening.

Eszter Balint was an interesting creature – she had this smallish frame and short dark hair. Somewhat atonal, offkey and definitely offbeat. Apparently, she has a fledgling movie career now turned music career. She was in a few of Jim Jarmusch Films (Trees Lounge, Stranger Than Paradise). Originally from Hungary, she plays violin and sings bittersweet, semi-caustic lyrics. Nothing wildly abrasive, only that she makes you think of broken glass and Comet cleanser and that flophouse excuse of an apartment you stayed too long at, going rent poor in New York. She reminds you of that time you layed next to an abusive lover who could really shine on that rare occasion – the one you had to try desperately, daily to talk yourself out of. To leave would mean to slough off a few layers of skin, like escaping from a bear trap, that or you layed awake at night watching their chest rise and fall and their eyes flutter as you considered killing them while they slept. Eventually you get smart and write a bunch of songs and tell morbid jokes about it.

Then there is the sweet sting of unrequited love in Sam Phillips music. She is a self-described torch singer. “Torch” both for tortured and for carrying a torch for that person you love who does not love you back. She could be swaying in front of a big band, a delicate-voiced thrush, in a small 40’s club with round tables and plenty of bourbon. Her music is wholly transporting, minimalistic with inventive percussion, small upright piano and brilliant violin punctuated by swirling Beatle-esque melodies and sharp lyrics honed with such an economy of language that they sing like paging through old photos and love letters from that time you spent in Paris with a beautiful stranger. She stood like a porcelain figure all in black, her hips curved slightly back in straight pants, the hind quarters of a silky fox, bellted by a thin shimmer of ribbon, her blouse drooped forward, a bowl to catch the song and spill it out to the upturned mouths of the audience, a small black jacket revealing the small of her back, strong for the carry.

She told cleverly crafted stories, read letters, used a handheld tape recorder as a musical backdrop for one song and looked piercingly around at the audience through a small curtain of blunt-cut blonde hair. She was wonderfully described once as “part savant, part naif, and part waif – seductive by thirds” and her music like a “subtle insistence.” Her “voice is very cool and often icy but it’s also expressive and interesting.” Her “music is mostly austere and thoughtful but it’s also enjoyable and sometimes quite catchy.” Sam Phillips is full of cagey, romantic observations even in her speech . . .

After singing “Draw Man” which she described as a “strip tease in reverse” she looked out at us, addressing the women in the audience growling, “do you know what i mean?” Some murmurred, some laughed, some howled and catcalled.

Her pedigree is also impressive, having left the world of Christian music (under the given name Leslie Phillips) she teamed up with husband/producer T Bone Burnett (producer of O Brother Where Art Thou) for a total transformation and has recorded with Elvis Costello and Gillian Welch.

Zoey and i exchanged glances and tear-soaked faces at points in the evening. Somehow a firefly got into the venue and hovered above her, blinking pale green, a magical sort of completely right moment. We came away from a performance that Zoey described as “hot.” And it was . . . truly.  As hauntingly deep as dreams and desire, we left the world for awhile and came back with the simple advice that we “shouldn’t work so hard at love – just have fun.”

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