For some, Glen and Grant-Lee Phillips -- the frontmen of Toad the Wet Sprocket and Grant Lee Buffalo, respectively -- summon memories of the early 1990s and the sensation of falling in love. For me, they represent fall and the emotions the season brings. Perhaps I suffer Seasonal Affective Disorder, but these artists can conjure sniffles in an instant with their autumnal chords and poetic lyrics. I watched both perform at Redamte Coffee House last night.
The scent of apple cider wafted through the packed café, where about 80 fans gathered for an up-close and personal show. The two artists flipped a guitar pick to decide who'd play the first solo set. Grant-Lee won and stepped up to the mic. Dressed in jeans and flannel, he was a picture of late October -- or a Paul Bunyan lookalike contest. He asked if there were any ice fishermen in the house, then opened with "Far End of the Night," a haunting tune from his 2004 album, Virginia Creeper. This song established just the right mood with rich, low vocal tones and lyrics such as "When it's just you and the road/Seen no taillights there for miles/And nothin' much but static on the radio ... Time hangs like a noose." He showed off his singing talents immediately, delivering some of the high notes with passionate punch and others with a cool, airy lightness like that of an autumn breeze.
I didn't come to know Grant-Lee through college radio or his band's opening gigs with '90s icons such as Pearl Jam and R.E.M. Instead, we connected through television as he played the town troubadour on Gilmore Girls, a CW series that ran from 2000-2007. "You may recognize me from leaning up against a lamppost," he said of the TV show before launching into "Mona Lisa," the song that accompanied one of its most romantic moments. His voice dipped into the low register Merle Haggard often explores, then reached for the heavens with a lush, vibrato-filled "ooh-ooh" reminiscent of Antony Hegarty and Jeff Buckley. I'm convinced that he indeed won Rolling Stone's Best Male Vocalist award in 1995.
After Grant-Lee shared "Buffalo Hearts" and "Great Horned Owl," two tunes from his new album, Walking in the Green Corn, Glen joined in for "Honey Don't Think," a song from Grant Lee Buffalo's 1994 album, Mighty Joe Moon. This performance was a study in contrasts: Grant's high, crisp voice and quick, rhythmic guitar playing complemented Grant-Lee's burly croon and strong, patient strums.
Though Glen doesn't share Grant-Lee's deep vocal register, he draws power form the style of his delivery, which, like his guitar playing, stresses rhythms. "Train Wreck," a tune from 2002's Abulum and the first song in his solo set, emphasized this point gracefully. Glen enunciates his words with precision, which gave this song a trenchant bite when he delivered lyrics like "She looked just like a train wreck/That could've been avoided." On "Dam Would Break," from Toad the Wet Sprocket's 1997 album Coil, his guitar's insistent rhythms created palpable tension as he sang about trouble articulating his feelings.
While Grant-Lee's songs tend to unfurl metaphors, Glen's tell fully formed stories about a variety of characters, real and imagined. This difference became clear when they closed the show with a set of duets that drew from both of their catalogs. Two of Toad the Wet Sprocket's biggest radio hits -- 1992's "All I Want" and "Walk on the Ocean" -- drew delighted shrieks from the crowd as Glen spun tales about deception and redemption. Grant-Lee paid homage to one of his main influences, Neil Young, with a plaintive, minor-key number about hidden treasures.
Grant-Lee mumbled his words from time to time, and Glen had to fend off bouts of nasally tone, but their voices meshed beautifully, especially during the encore. On "Fountain of Youth," from Grant-Lee's 2007 album Stranglet, their voices found the same high pitch for a heartbeat-like "bum-bum."