Phil Cook. Southland Mission. Thirty Tigers/Middle West Records

Who’s Phil Cook you may ask. Well, Blabber’n’Smoke saw him play to a packed ABC O2 this week in support of The Tallest Man On Earth. Dwarfed by the stage Cook and his electric guitar delivered a short but very sweet set of songs, his guitar playing reminiscent of Ry Cooder and even Pops Staples, riding and sliding a rural blues groove with ease. Turns out that Cook has been a busy guy over the past decade, a close colleague of Bon Ivor in Wisconsin before relocating to North Carolina playing in Megafaun and becoming a studio producer and session man for Hiss Golden Messenger, Matthew E White, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Alice Gerrard.

Southland Mission is touted as Cook’s debut album although apparently he released an album of solo songs a few years back. It is however a magnificent collection of blues soul and gospel grooves that packs a thump, swamp ridden, riddled with joy and despair. His guitar playing is a joy, warm and supple with added zest when required whether he’s picking or playing slide and throughout there’s a Southern feel be it the Allman’s on the slide guitar of Gone or the back porch picking of Belong.

The album opens with the breezy Ain’t It Sweet which recalls classic Little Feat, chugging guitar and bar room piano leading into the harmonies (added by Justin Vernon) before Cook delivers a stinging slide solo. 1992 is a cover of a Charlie Parr song that clucks and picks, again Cook’s guitar is sublime, adding layers within the song and sounding as if it’s been transported from the Depression era as the band whip up a mighty country blues thump. There’s a slide guitar intro into Great Tide, another song that reeks of Lowell George and there’s no finer compliment than that. The song clatters and burns, guitars glowering, voices hollered over a vital heartbeat from bass and drums reaching a crescendo before slowing down and massing for a final aural assault. It’s really quite magnificent.

Next up there’s a dip into acoustic country blues with Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin and fiddler Bobby Britt expertly leading Cook down a dappled path on Belong before the Cooder like Sitting On A Fence weaves its way into view. A sinewy Gospel tinged country blues with some great female harmonies it shifts its shape with a sly sinuosity as the guitars snake and buzz. There’s more guitar excellence on the field holler Gospel of Lowly Road with Cook achieving a fine sense of thrum and throb on the strings; turn the volume up here and the song just reverberates, ably assisted by the vocal harmonies which are somewhat bewitching. Time To Wake is like a funky Daniel Lanois production, ambient but with some earth thrown in and Cook closes the album with his melodic duet with Frazey Ford on Anybody Else along with the grand Southern rock chug of Gone which, as mentioned earlier recalls The Allman Brothers Band in their heyday.

So lesson ended and by now you should be itching to hear some of Mr. Cook. You won’t be disappointed.

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