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Glen Phillips plays at Kirk Avenue Music Hall on Friday.
Courtesy Rob Shanahan
Thursday, April 4, 2013
Singer/songwriter Glen Phillips figures you have to have a story to get across as an act these days.
Fortunately for the once and future Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman, he has plenty of stories.
Phillips, who plays Kirk Avenue Music Hall on Friday night, is hitting the room solo. But he'll be playing such Toad hits as "All I Want" and "Walk On The Ocean," along with songs from a multitude of post-Toad projects. Those include Mutual Admiration Society — a band that included Nickel Creek's Sean and Sara Watkins and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones — and another band that he formed with Sean Watkins, Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Plenty of Phillips' solo material is in the repertoire, too. And it will just be Phillips, his easily recognizable singing voice and his guitar, fretted by a left arm nearly ruined by a fall through a glass table at Watkins' house.
And that's quite a story.
Funny bone feeling
Phillips was hanging at Watkins' house in 2008, sitting on a glass-topped coffee table. He thought it would support his weight, but after a while, it broke, and he fell into the shards.
The accident sliced most of his ulnar nerve, and he had to have it surgically repaired. He was able to play again, but not without a familiar yet uncomfortable feeling.
"My pinky and half of my ring finger, and kind of the outside of my left hand, are always pins and needles when it gets cold," he said. "Basically, it's like you whacked your funny bone really hard, but all the time.
"My gripping muscles work, but the lateral muscles are still unplugged. But you learn how to work around stuff if you have to."
He was on tour, with Watkins playing guitar, two months after surgery.
"I was just a terrible guitarist for a couple of years," he said, laughing. "But the doctors all told me the best way to recover was playing guitar."
Eventually, the nerve trauma went away, but the nerves in that hand still are slow to respond.
"I'm never going to be, probably, the guitarist I would have been, or was, even, but I've figured out some other things along the way ... and for all my caveats about my guitar playing, it's good enough that you don't notice it ... I worked hard."
The whole incident reminded Phillips to be careful what he asks for.
"I'd been wanting a challenge, and I'd been wanting an excuse to play with other people more, and I got exactly what I asked for," he said, laughing.
Toad the Wet Sprocket had a nice run of hits in the early 1990s, then split up for the reason so many bands do: The players couldn't get along anymore. But after all these years, and a number of reunion tours, Toad is finishing its sixth album — the first since 1997's "Coil."
The answer for Toad was as simple, and maybe as complicated, as the problem.
"It was mostly realizing that getting along was the new normal," Phillips said. "We got together and played shows a few times and kind of remembered why we'd broken up. Then we'd get together a couple of years later and try it again. Eventually, we got together and everybody just seemed kind of happy and grateful.
"I think we all just grew up a little and decided it was nicer to enjoy it than not enjoy it [laughs]."
The band — minus Phillips, who is on tour — is mixing the last of the upcoming album. Toad recorded a bunch of songs, and has 15 from which to choose.
"I like to think it's a very strong batch of songs, so it's really hard to figure out what not to put on it," he said.
After that part of the task is done, the band plans to do a Kickstarter.com pitch to fund a distribution plan — and to get out the word that the band is in action again.
"I think these days you kind of have to have a story. ... We can create that, and we're lucky enough that if we can just reach a fraction of our old fans ... we'll be in great shape," he said. "And if we can get some new people in, that'll be awesome, too."
Phillips spoke by phone with us last Friday, at airports near his Santa Monica, Calif., home and in San Francisco. He was on his way to Chicago, the beginning of a road trip that runs through Ashland, Va.; Norfolk; and Roanoke before ending in Asheville, N.C. After that, he heads back to the West Coast for the beginning of a nine-show run with Toad.
On a podcast at blogs.roanoke.com/cutnscratch, we play two songs from his newest solo release, "Coyote Sessions." Both songs, "Greer Zoller" and "Eden," have interesting back stories, too.
"Greer Zoller" came from a challenge while Phillips was touring with Nickel Creek a few years back. The challenge: Someone comes up with a song title, then everyone has to write a song by the next day, based on that title. The first title came up during a dinner. Greer Zoller was the name of their waitress.
"It was just the obvious first title, so this woman named Greer Zoller has five songs" with her name in the title, he said, laughing.
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