FAME Review: Various Artists - Long Gone: Utah Remembers Bruce 'Utah' Phillips
Various Artists - Long Gone: Utah Remembers Bruce 'Utah' Phillips

Long Gone:
Utah Remembers Bruce "Utah" Phillips

Various Artists

Waterbug Records - WBG 96

Available from Waterbug Records.

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker

Though he was born in Cleveland, Ohio, I know why Bruce Phillips adopted the sobriquet of 'Utah', and it's an explanation that works only if you've been there more than once, well beyond all the tourist crap. Though I'd never live there (damnably cold winters), it's my favorite state in the union, and I've hiked and scrambled all over the southern red rock section (Colorado Plateau), often solo. There's a rough primal magic in that state, and only a son or daughter of the Earth can really understand the compelling beauty of the place. I'll very happily enlighten any who care to be upleveled thusly: you pay for the vacation (hasta be in September), and I'll show you things you'll find nowhere else on Earth (Calf Creek, Canyonlands, Dead Horse Point, Zion Narrows, Goblin Valley, etc.), marvels that will make you sit flat on the ground, dazzled, as well as a spirit that dwells nowhere else. That last part is the secret.

I also see Phillips as a hidden but seminal modern figure in the usually sad community calling itself "anarchists"; in fact, I'd call him a 'zenarchist', as he lived the credo that most of the anarkos klatch only yodels and preens about, an academic congeries not dissimilar to Louis Proyect and his yakkity-yak socialism. As a meta-anarchist, I've found little if anything in the anarchist, socialist, communist, trotskyite, or any of the 'istie' camps to provoke any sentiment of kindredness beyond basic impersonal canons (for which none need priestly guiding hands, we should adamantly note). Yet, knowing of Phillips' unvarnished live-for-the-moment understanding of the immediacy of life and its wonders, as well as the obligations of those gifted with talent and intelligence to assist in the globe's awakening, I was, too late in life, instantly attracted to the gent. I'm sure he had his flaws—the relationship to his family appears, at least at first glance, enigmatic at best—but that desire of his to live the hobo life was a powerful statement of basic zen nature, and I found myself as moth to flame. Thus, the grizzled guy has joined a small circle of illuminants counting among its number Bill Hicks, Noam Chomsky, Ikkyu, Lenny Bruce, and various non-conformist minds who found or find their solace over the wound of life by persistently upsetting the established order.

The Utah troubadour was in point of fact a cult figure his entire life. I doubt he much cared for the vapidity of fame, though I'm sure he could have used the money, just like anyone else in this capitalist hell. Funny, though, isn't it?, how so many of those on the "Left" enamored of the guy are also careful to avoid much mention of the fact that we was indeed an anarchist, labor organizer, Wobblie, a Do Nothing'er, and glorious pain in the ass to authority wherever it raised its ugly, scabrous, cancerous head. But that was Bruce's true inner life, the element that tends to be the least acted upon by those who too often idolatrize him. Such emulation would, after all, be unfashionable and career-endangering, so the famed and not-so-well-known keep mum and distance the art from the man, not to mention his commitment to Humanist principals well beyond their own. The irony, of course, is that that whole cotillion is capitalistically entrapped to the point of being little more than apostolic Catholics: once their fortune's made, we are tacitly assured, they'll be fellow travelers. Except there is no end to the concept of 'fortune', no far side of greed. It only swells and bloats and becomes ever more unwieldy every step of the way; thus, The Machine keeps even artists comforted and fuzzy, well away from life.

If you understand what I've just written, you grasp the cynical sub-text of what is to follow. If not, take heart, I'm now abandoning the itchy realm of politics to laud this CD's many virtues.

I'll have to content myself with a bit of guesswork here and there, as the disc arrived without promo lit and the liner notes are wanting in several respects, but the matter at hand is the music, and that element's sparkling, a warm and effervescent transcription of the sentiment Phillips evoked in his many admirers and fellows. Paul Rasmussen kicks everything off with a Gordon Lightfootesque take on Eddies' Song followed by the woman who, as far as I can tell, created the project, Kate MacLeod, in a rendition of another state-named character, Nevada Jane. It's a beautiful cover reminiscent of Joan Baez with MacLeod's distinctive personal touches.

There's only one five-person roster of backing musicians, so I'm forced to wonder how on Earth MacLeod and Utah's son Duncan were able to gather everyone—17 disparate souls!—together with any least cohesion of logistics: a long-term catch-as-catch-can project? a short well-scheduled series of studio sessions? a bogglingly populated tour from which the recordings were culled? Whatever the answer, and I suspect a concert tour, the selections are all of a piece, timbrally and environmentally unified, euphonically integrated like a meticulously planned LP, though certain cuts really stand out, such as Gentri Watson's goosebump-inducing take on Jesse's Corrido. The disc runs over an hour, 18 tracks, and is an immersion in a milieu too rapidly disappearing as the maw of soulless money-making and debt-slaving roars full swing into its epoch.

Long Gone is a rare bird, a rich tapestry I suspect the listener will be hard put to decide how to heed—all at once, piecemeal, or several times in a row? I suspect the piecemeal approach will be the most appealing, as each song provokes contemplation, the necessity to put the stereo on hold and think about what was just presented. That, of course, is the special power of really good folk music, it's revelation of the infinite metaphors and underlying unity of the human condition and all the vexing sorrows in what should be a much more paradisical estate. Nary a cut here scamps that literarily philosophical muscle. The conclusions one comes to should be as disturbing to the audience as they were to the singer-composer.

Phillips once said, self-deprecatingly, "It is better to be likeable than talented", and I couldn't disagree more wholeheartedly, yet that's how some get things done. As his fame and observations grow more known year by year, he may be right and I may be wrong, but, were Bruce still around and we able to talk, I think he'd agree with me……and I with him. From what I can tell, that's the kind of guy he was.

Track List:

  • Eddie's Song - Paul Rasmussen
  • Nevada Jane - Kate MacLeod
  • Scofield Mine Disaster - Mike and Shauna Iverson
  • Jesse's Corrido - Gentri Watson
  • If I Could Be the Rain - Polly Stewart
  • I Think of You - Brent Bradford
  • Long Gone (Duncan Phillips) - Duncan Phillips
  • Miner's Lullaby (U. Phillips / Stecher / Brislin) - Anke Summerhill
  • Ragged Old Man - Doug Wintch
  • Orphan Train - Carla Eskelsen
  • NPR Talking Blues - Ken Shaw
  • Pig Hollow - Kyle Wulle
  • Goin' Away - Gigi Love
  • Room for the Poor - Hal Cannon
  • The Telling Takes Me Home - Dave Eskelsen
  • Hallelujah I'm a Bum (Harry McCintock) - Tom Shults
  • The Long Memory (spoken) - Mike Garcia
  • Ship's Gonna Sail (U. Phillips / Kamm) - Group Song
All songs written by Utah Phillips except as noted in parentheses.
Performers in bold face.

Edited by: David N. Pyles

Copyright 2011, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
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