Pop & Hiss
Review

Joe Henry, Sam Phillips showcase smart songwriting at Largo

Joe Henry and Sam Phillips put on a master class in song craft at Largo at the Coronet

Singer and songwriter Joe Henry referenced a coincidence Saturday during the show he shared at Largo at the Coronet with another L.A.-based musician and artist, Sam Phillips. The show shared the same day as the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, and the birthday of singer Nina Simone.

Henry said that both had profound impact on his life and his perspective as an artist, the correlation being that in the wake of Malcolm X’s violent death, Simone’s music “taught us how to answer violence with beauty.”

There’s an undercurrent of tragedy in much of Henry’s music that occasionally bursts to the surface in his literate and emotionally powerful songwriting, and that he nearly always finds some way to answer with beauty drawn from human experience.

It made for a deeply rewarding performance, all the more resonant for the familial dynamic at play. Henry was joined for many numbers by his woodwind-playing son, Levon Henry, drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist Jennifer Condon; and by Phillips for a few numbers along with her daughter from her marriage to T Bone Burnett, Simone.

The communal aspect of the nearly 2 1/2-hour early show added another layer of warmth to songs that felt meticulously sculpted without becoming over-intellectualized.

Phillips drew from recent work that she’s shared with her fan base during her yearlong “Long Player” subscription experiment on her website, many of the songs later surfacing in more conventionally released CDs and online.

Henry surveyed material from the many albums he’s released between  production assignments for artists such as Bonnie Raitt (who dropped in quietly at the back of the room on Saturday), Bettye LaVette, Mose Allison, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Salif Keita.

Phillips opened with “Underwear,” a compact vignette by Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt that, like Phillips’ own songs, makes the most of  comparatively few strokes of the pen.

Take her song “Signal,” rich in imagery and emotional resonance, one of many instances that supported Henry’s description of her as “one of the most underrated songwriters”:

Waiting for a sign

Between heart and skin

Through the shoulders

Where the wings might have been

She also remains a master of theatrically informed performance, demonstrating through her hourlong set that less is more, a glance, a raised eyebrow communicating more than many young pop singers’ overamped physicality.

Henry’s songs twist and turn melodically, like a creek winding its way through the thorny territory he explores. As he put it in “All Blues Hail Mary,” the song he dedicated to Nina Simone and Malcolm X: “All blues sing that love is light not glory/ A story not a crown.”

He delivered that story and others with nuanced vocals and artful acoustic guitar accompaniment, empathetically supported and amplified with skillful touches from his backing band.

Henry said he and Phillips have been friends for nearly a quarter-century, and that “we’ve been talking about doing something like this for at least half that time.” Their meeting of musical minds was worth the wait.

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