Phil Cook and his band The Guitarheels brought sweet Southern sounds to Rough Trade Thursday for the first performance of their two-night tour. Cook has been known in the industry as a great musician for years, but always lending his talents towards another’s vision. Last week, the room was filled with those eager to hear Cook’s debut stepping into the spotlight. Some fans traveled as far as his native Wisconsin to witness is first show supporting Southland Mission – an album built from the journey to find his voice and interpretations of his Southern inspiration.
With a full band behind him, the sound is BIG. Even some of the softer songs have an evangelical feeling to them, conjuring up past life memories of congregations’ voices filling a tiny country church. The crowd fed off Cook’s passion — dancing, clapping and singing along. The night felt like a front porch jam session, with Cook expertly leading the group.
In 2005, Phil Cook packed up his life in Wisconsin and moved to North Carolina. As a lifelong musician, he felt pulled to the South, to the sounds of blues and country and soul. Cook grew up in the Midwest, learning different instruments and playing around the scene in his hometown, but there was only so much there for him. When he crossed the Mason-Dixon, he found a community of musicians and began to fuel what would become Southland Mission. After stowing away in a friend’s cabin in Virginia, the album began to take shape. Cook invited local artists to join him, tapping the likes of Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso and Michael E. White. At the end of the performance on Thursday, Cook humbly advises everyone to surround themselves with people who have fire for what they do and gave credit to the peers that motivate and challenge him each day.
Paying homage to the midcentury blues and R&B, Cook wore a blue Roebucks shirt on stage in honor of Pops Staples. Nowadays, much of that sound is dwindling away, but still strong in the lower states. Cook proves you don’t have to be from the deep South to identify with the heritage sounds streaming out of that region of the country. He’s always been a fan, but felt removed until worked on Blind Boys of Alabama record – then felt like he had “permission” to act on the music. The album is a coming out party for Cook. You can sense the love in the music – a piece of pure art that inspires the listener to be as true and authentic in their own endeavors. This one will be in regular rotation for a while.