A Brilliant, Starkly Smoldering Album From Guitarslinger Phil Gammage

by delarue

Phil Gammage is one of the great polymath guitarists in New York. He got his start as a hotshot lead player with second-gen CBGB band Certain General while still in his teens,. But the native Texan always stayed in touch with his Americana roots. Over the years, he’s gone deep into Chicago blues, hard country and even spare dustbowl folk. On the mic, he’s a crooner with a noir streak. In the years before the lockdown, he could be found at small venues across Manhattan, and he’s back at a favorite haunt, 11th Street Bar in the East Village tonight, June 22 at 8:30 PM.

His latest album Nowhere to Somewhere – streaming at Bandcamp – is his strongest and most diverse release in a long and underrated career. The level of songcraft matches the vast stylistic range in Gammage’s bag of riffs. He opens with Walk in the Sun,-a dirty bumpa-bumpa blues, Hound Dog Taylor mixed with Sleepy LaBeef and a little peak-era mid-80s Gun Club.

Gammage switches to acoustic twelve-string for Between the Tracks, then adds simmering electric layers and spare piano for a distantly menacing Dream Syndicate ambience. Greg Holt’s violin swirls over Michael Fox’s lithe drums and Brian Karp’s low-key bass in Voice on the Phone, a tasty mashup of 70s Stylistics soul and early 50s pre-rockabilly.

Gammage reinvents the Appalachian gothic ballad Alone and Forsaken as spare Mark Sinnis-style cemetery and western with funeral-parlor organ lurking in the background. Then he picks up the pace with What Would I Do, blending slurry blues riffs, sophisticated countrypolitan phrasing and spare, incisive Chicago blues.

Gammage works a warmly familiar four-chord front-porch folk progression in Come on Lightning, Holt’s violin weaving and dancing overhead. He returns to Nashville gothic for the gloomy electric Hank Williams shuffle Just Another Traveling Man, the ghost choir of Michele Butler and Joe Nieves lingering in the background.

It’s impossible to think of a more creepy, lurid, Lynchian cover of Night Life than the spare, sepulchral one here. Next, Gammage mashes up classic Carl Perkins rockabilly and a little southern-fried mid-80s boogie in Never Ending Setting Sun.

He works terse contrasts between acoustic and electric, major and minor in the nocturnally swaying Shadow Road. So Long and Goodbye, the closing cut, is the closest thing to 21st century Americana here. Like so many albums that came out in the musical dead zone that was the fall and winter of 2021, this one pretty much sank without a trace, which is too bad because it’s a clinic in purist guitar. Fans of Eric Ambel, Steve Wynn and the edgy first wave of Americana bands from the 80s like the Long Ryders will love this.

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