Bruce "U. Utah" Phillips is the genuine article, an artist with an archival knowledge of folk music, a humorist with a firm grasp of history and a wandering minstrel with a deep, personal connection to the working people frequently left out of the American Dream. For more than 30 years, he has traveled the North American continent singing songs steeped in folk's time-honored traditions and telling tall tales compiled from the collective experiences of those he has encountered along the way. His recorded output over the years has been sporadic, though recent collaborations with Ani DiFranco have exposed Phillips' music and left-of-center politics to a whole new generation of fans.
When I first made contact with him on the eve of Thanksgiving, our minds were both focused more on the impending feast than on anything so mundane as a story to preview a rare Utah Phillips appearance in Spokane.
"Are you going to bite hot dead bird tomorrow?" asks the irrepressible Phillips from his home in the foothills of the Sierras.
I tell him, "I'm afraid so."
"Good," he responds. "Me too. I can't stand tofu turkeys, which is what they eat around this part of California. I want turkey and I want sage stuffing and I want brussel sprouts and, by God, mashed potatoes and gravy. Everything my cardiologist hates."
Thanksgiving, it seemed, was a perfect introductory topic for discussion and, perhaps, an oblique (but effective) method to get to the essence of the American West's most respected and endearing folk icon.
Phillips' Spokane gig Friday night at the Lewis & amp; Clark High School auditorium represents a homecoming of sorts for the 60-something self-described "travelling folk singer and story teller." Phillips first came to Spokane to host Expo '74's Folklife Festival. He stayed on for a spell, married and raised two children here. He was also instrumental in the establishment of Spokane's Peace and Justice Action League (PJALS). He moved out of the area in 1986 and currently resides in Nevada City, a small former mining town.
Folk music has always been an accessible, inclusive art form. During the folk revival of the late '50s through the early '70s, it became a potent and high-profile force for social and political reform as well, championing both civil rights and the anti-war movement. Building upon folk's long-established legacy of political activism and musical traditions hundreds of years old, performers like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan got everyone singing -- and working for progressive causes. With the end of the Vietnam War, however, topical folk music began to disappear from radio playlists.
"It persists," contends Phillips. "We've got the issues. What we need is the means of communication. During the 1960s, you could hear [Dylan's] "Masters of War" or "The Times They Are A-Changin'" on pop radio. Now, the same kind of music is being created and is being created in greater volume. It's just that there are very few places for it to be played."
In 2002, we find history repeating itself. The warmongers and their corporate sponsors are back in charge of the national agenda.
"This country has been taken over by a bunch of thugs," he says. "It's an oligarchy. George Bush and Dick Cheney and all those people at the top come from the corporate world, the banking world, and they have no experience with democracy. They are running the executive branch like a large corporation. Only now they have an army -- at public expense -- to defend their interests globally."
Despite this setback for peace and justice in the national arena, Phillips maintains his faith in basic human goodness by advocating a grassroots approach to reform, with people working for the betterment of their own little corner of the world.
"If I take what's going on in the world from the top down, the way I get it from the mass media, I can get really depressed. But when I'm out on the street, when I'm moving through the world at the bottom, I see too many good people doing too many good things for me to be pessimistic.
"You can look at it like a beautiful mural that goes for miles and miles," Phillips continues. "That mural shows how things could be. There are people behind you throwing mud at that mural, plastering the whole thing. All I can do is to stand in front of that mural, in front of the part that's directly in front of me, and reach out and scrape the mud away. You see? Someone standing way out there will look at the whole thing and say, 'That whole thing is covered with mud. This is futile.' All I can say to them is, you pick the part of the mural that's in front of you and you reach out and scrape the mud off. If enough people do that, we can win. But if we all stand back and look at it from the top down, we're going to be paralyzed with dread."
In his adopted hometown, Phillips has worked to establish a local peace center, and he is involved with Nevada City's community radio station where he produces a show called "Loafers Glory: Hobo Jungle of the Mind," which is syndicated and broadcast nationwide on 60 stations. He also networks with peace centers all over the country.
"I'm an activist to the extent that most of the people around me are," he says. "I guess me and a couple million other people are out to save the world and feel that if we're not, we're wasting our time."
Still, the last thing Phillips wants to do during a performance is bludgeon you with politics.
"I can sing those songs about social and political concerns, but there's nothing more lethal than a whole evening of political music," he asserts with a chuckle. "And I don't intend to do that. I want to get people singing with me and laughing. I'm going to sit on a chair with a guitar and a cup of water and I'm going to start to talk. And then I'm going to sing. And if something occurs to me, I'm going to stop and tell another story and then I'm going to sing some more. And then I'll talk. And in order to relieve the tedium, I will then burst into song once again. I'll sing some old songs and I will sing some songs that I made up. They will be about trains and tramping and the travelling nation, about war and peace, and about all the dumb and beautiful things that can happen to you when you're in love. And I'm going to want people to sing with me. I love the sound of these old songs being sung by a large group of people. We all used to do that. But we kind of got pressed into the roles of consumers of music and told not to make it.
"If you only sing songs about everything that's wrong, people go out more depressed than they already were. That's not my job. I'll leave that up to CNN."
Gimme Leather -- Run to the hills. The latest star in the burgeoning heavy metal tribute band firmament is an Orange County, Calif., all-fem version of those British lions, Iron Maiden. With looks backing metallic hooks and jaw-dropping fretwork pyrotechnics, the five members of the Iron Maidens have concocted a live spectacle -- complete with their own version of the band's desiccated mascot, Eddie -- that is arguably more loving adoration than an exercise in camp. And while Bruce Dickinson and Co. (yes, they live) have no immediate plans for another U.S. invasion, fans can get their ya-yas out this week as the world's only Iron Maiden tribute band opens metal shop right here in Spokane -- first at the B-Side on Monday night and then at Hotteez on Tuesday.
I know what you're thinking. How the hell can an all-woman band accurately and convincingly reproduce the scorching, tes-tosterone-fueled sounds that so endeared Iron Maiden to the headbanging set? Maiden fans, after all, are a notoriously fanatical and discerning lot. But I guess no one would know that better than the Iron Maidens' co-founder and lead vocalist, Jenny "Bruce Chickinson" Warren, herself a bound-in-leather-and-studs Maiden disciple. And from what I can gather, Warren, supported by her spandex clan's pounding aural assault, has no trouble hitting the notes in such Maiden chestnuts as "The Trooper," "Number of the Beast" and "Run to the Hills" with authority and panache.
The question, in fact, becomes, how did Dickinson manage it in the first place?