James Phillips on his own for the first time

Phil Cook & His Feat, Sumner James
Tir na nOg
Nov. 15, 2012

Among the advantages of free showcases like the Tir na nOg’s Local Band-Local Beer night is the ability to try out new things without much pressure. With no cost to get in and a reliable weekly beer special, the Thursday crowd at the Raleigh Irish pub varies in size, but is always willing to give unfamiliar acts a chance. This week, two Durham talents seized the opportunity to debut new performances that, while occasionally rough, overflowed with promise.

James Phillips opened with what he told the crowd was his first-ever solo performance. This summer, the Bombadil drummer took a break from the band’s eccentric and emotionally potent folk to record an album called 29 Days, which he credited to the moniker Sumner James. The charming collection adds exacting, found-sound details to dubstep-inspired minimalism, a far cry from the work Phillips contributes to in Bombadil.

Playing in a duet format with Elysse Thebner (Some Army, JKutchma & the Five Fifths), Phillips emphasized the electronic end of his aesthetic, weaving ploding, concussive beats with patient keyboard lines and delicate guitar garnishes from Thebner. There were miscues and moments when the duo’s elements felt somewhat out of sync, but the set’s frequent successes resounded with passionate resolve. “Long Life,” a straightforward love song and 29 Days lone acoustic number, was transformed with steely piano and a cold, mechanical beat, making its twee-leaning wish for a long and happy relationship seem like a doomed proposition.

Better still was Sumner James’ last number. Paying tribute to headliner and Megafaun member Phil Cook, who Phillips explained had asked him to play the gig two months prior when he had no intention of creating a live show for the project, he combined samples from Megafaun’s “These Words” and “Hope You Know” with his own chants and keys. The results balanced the tumultuous rhythms of “These Words” with the latter tune’s emotional heft, a transfixing display that affirmed Phillips’ talent more than any other part of the performance.

Phil Cook putting his Feat up

Unlike Phillips, Cook has been playing solo for a couple years now, adding percussion with his feet and wielding banjo and guitar in a way that merges the straightforward melodies of traditional blues and old time with the complexity of more modern compositions. But on Thursday, he gave his Feat the night off, pairing instead with drummer Yan Westerlund. The Bowerbirds member is a longtime friend of Cook and the brother of Megafaun drummer, Joe Westerlund. That familiarity was key as Cook said he had driven in from Minneapolis just before the show and that the duo’s “rehearsal” had consisted of him handing Westerlund a piece of paper with a sentence explaining each of the songs they would perform.

In this new context, Cook abandoned the acoustic end of his repertoire, instead opting for blazing blues tones that never overwhelmed the intricacy of his enthralling tunes. The collaborative aspect wasn’t very wowing as Westerlund mostly offered simple and efficient rhythmic support, an admirable accomplishment considering the circumstances. But the setup allowed Cook to throw his full vigor into his guitar lines and also to try out other tricks. There was a blistering harmonica piece that found him singing with ragged intensity into his harp mic. There was tender and soulful singing, the best during an original Cook wrote for his baby boy.

Thursday’s show wasn’t overwhelming. The ideas these artists were wood-shedding still need some work. But it was an exciting night nonetheless, an early look at performances that could very well rise to greatness in the near future.