Shawn Phillips’ Moment In Time

Originally posted December 7, 2007

Earlier this week, I mentioned that one of the regular events at St. Cloud State during the late 1960s and early 1970s was an annual performance by guitarist Leo Kottke. The same held true for Shawn Phillips: Once a year for about four or five years, the Texas native would come into town for a concert, either in the acoustically challenged basketball venue Halenbeck Hall or in Stewart Hall auditorium, which seated fewer people but was better suited for musical performances.

Phillips’ annual visit to St. Cloud – coupled with performances at the same time in the Twin Cities – was a reflection of his significant popularity here in the Upper Midwest. I remember reading a pre-concert piece in one of the Twin Cities papers; the piece noted that Phillips drew larger crowds – and sold more records – in Minnesota than he did anywhere else except his home state of Texas. Phillips said that Minnesotans’ devotion to him was a mystery, but it was a welcome mystery, of course.

He came through St. Cloud twice during my first two years of college, and I saw him once, in Halenbeck Hall during my sophomore year. The 8,000-seat gymnasium wasn’t the best place to hear Phillips, whose softer moments require a venue with some acoustic delicacy, but it was nevertheless a pretty good show. By that time – late 1972 or early 1973 – Phillips had four albums of current work to draw a show from: Contribution from 1970, Second Contribution and Collaboration from 1971, and Faces, which was released in 1972 but includes works from 1969. (All-Music Guide lists two albums from the mid-1960s, both described as fairly standard folk music; I’ve heard neither of them.)

I missed Phillips’ concert in Stewart Hall late during my freshman year after being grounded for the first and only time of my life; I was not yet of legal age and had come home from a party very clearly having imbibed too many beers. As a result, I gave my pair of tickets for the show to Rick. Happily, I was able to listen to the concert on the St. Cloud State radio station.

The highlight of both concerts was Phillips’ performance of the opening song from Second Contribution, the haunting ballad colloquially known as “Woman,” as its actual and unwieldy title is “She Was Waiting For Her Mother At The Station In Torino And You Know I Love You Baby But It’s Getting Too Heavy To Laugh.” The song starts nearly a capella, with Phillips’ high tenor voice backed only by what sounds like tympani, and goes on from there to tie together most of the first half of the album.

Listening to the first four albums today is an exercise in time travel, and it’s especially hard for me to critically assess Second Contribution and Faces, as they are very clearly what I call “time-and-place music,” tunes that tie me into the past. The other two – Contribution and Collaboration – have similar qualities but came to me later, and thus provide an opportunity to take a more clear look at Phillips’ early work.

And what do we find? Well, lyrically, all four albums have lots of hippie mysticism and romantic mythology, as well as some nicely crafted love songs with some inventive and intriguing turns of phrase. And there are a few bits of wit and humor along the way. Musically, Phillips’ work is never less than good, and some of the music in those first four albums is simply stunning, aided by Phillips’ astounding vocal range and – on Second Contribution and Collaboration – by string arrangements from Paul Buckmaster, whose credits include work around the same time with Elton John.

It seems as if Phillips’ moment ended not long after the release of Faces in 1972. The remarkable ballad “We,” was released as a single in 1974, but it got little airplay and evidently didn’t make the Cash Box Top 100.* Phillips continued to release albums through the 1970s, but since then, his releases have been sporadic, with the most recent being No Category in 2003.

Of his first four albums of the 1970s, the only one not in print on CD is Collaboration, which commands prices of $80 or more when the CD is available. The other three early 1970s albums are readily available online for standard prices. Phillips’ later work in the 1970s and 1980s seems to be out of print.

I was going to rip Collaboration to share it today, but it’s a relatively quiet album, and both of my vinyl copies have more surface noise than I care for. So I dipped into Phillips’ later 1970s work and found Transcendence from 1978. It’s a pretty good album, of a piece with the rest of his work, although the lyrics don’t seem to stand up as well, especially on the over-earnest “I’m an American Child (On a Nuclear Pile)” Musically, it’s enjoyable with a breath-taking moment or two. (There are some unavoidable bits of noise here and there, but in general, I think the record was in pretty good shape.)

Take It Easy
I’m an American Child (On a Nuclear Pile)
Lady in Violet
Good Evening Madam
Lament Pour L’Enfant Mort
Julia’s Letters/Motes of Dust/Ease Your Mind

Shawn Phillips – Transcendence [1978]

* “We” was actually released as a single in late 1972 or early 1973. It entered the Billboard Hot 100 in mid-January 1973 and went to only No. 89. My belief that the single was released in 1974 was based on its appearance during the autumn of that year in the basement jukebox at St. Cloud State’s Atwood Center. Note added May 25, 2011.


One Response to “Shawn Phillips’ Moment In Time”

  1. An Album Forgotten, Now Finally Found « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] up and figured if I were supposed to have Collaboration in my RealPlayer, it would come to me. And not long ago, I ripped and shared Transcendence, a later Shawn Phillips album, here and at a couple bulletin […]

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