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The Boston Phoenix Medicine Show

Grant Lee Buffalo's musical magic.

By Jonathan Perry

JUNE 15, 1998:  During the five years since they debuted with 1993's grandly eloquent Fuzzy, Grant Lee Phillips and his LA-based band Grant Lee Buffalo have released graceful albums of rare, gentle opulence that have succeeded not so much because they sounded like anything stunningly new as because they just sounded, well, stunning. Beneath the lush exterior of '90s production values, GLB singles like "Mockingbirds" have seemed like ancient revelries, haunted howls of longing and desire stretching across generations.

The band's new Jubilee (Slash/Warner Bros.) represents both an end and a beginning. It's the group's first without original bassist/pianist and producer Paul Kimble, who parted ways with them after the release of 1996's Copperopolis. It's the first time they've enlisted an outside producer -- Paul Fox, who's worked with XTC, 10,000 Maniacs, and Robyn Hitchcock -- and used an outside bass player (former Tonic bassist Dan Rothschild). And Phillips and Buffalo co-founder Joey Peters invited some friends to the jamboree, including multi-instrumentalists Jon Brion and Phil Parlapiano, steel-guitarist Greg Leisz, Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffee, Michael Stipe, E from the Eels, and Robyn Hitchcock.

When the band played the Lansdowne Street Playhouse last month, Phillips talked about being a four-piece on the road. "In many ways, with the new line-up the songs are probably truer to the arrangements on record," he said as he and Peters and I, surrounded by lit candles, sat inside the band's trailer. "You always have to go for the meat-and-potatoes stuff, but now you get the cobbler as well. It's been a joy to return to some of the earlier songs that we might not have played that much because it was harder to pull 'em off."

The new songs sound pretty good too -- Jubilee lives up to its title. The name springs from the group's staging, in a local club back home last year, of their own version of a rock-and-roll circus, with Phillips as MC presiding over an evening of, as he puts it, "magic and music and hokum, a medicine show." True to the spirit of those nights, the disc is raucous, euphoric, even celebratory -- eons away from the subdued, dusky tones of Copperopolis. And despite the array of celebrity well-wishers who pitched in, Jubilee is a vivid and focused piece of work.

The first track, "APB," opens with a rush of bristling guitars, shattering Copperopolis's vast silences. The immediacy of those guitars dovetails into 13 other numbers that range from the crushed-out ache of "Truly, Truly" to the Crazy Horse stomp of "Crooked Dice" to the ethereal sway of the Jeff Buckley-ish closing title track. Augmented by the likes of Jaffee's warm Hammond tones and Hitchcock's braying harmonica, the music shifts and expands in different directions. Phillips's bracing voice -- which can and does take flight into swooping falsettos before breaking down into hushed, intimate asides -- is that of a lover, a loner, and a confidant, but never a stranger. More than anything, it's a friendly, intimate voice.

"For me, this record has coincided with a rekindling of why I do this, what I love about music, and the joy that comes with losing yourself, remembering what it's about," he says. "I find this a very joyful record to listen to, more so than some of the past records." Peters attributes the exhilaration to doing away with insular ideas about what is and isn't appropriate for Grant Lee Buffalo. "By not knowing how it was going to turn out, you explore different things musically. There were no set rules -- the only rule was that we loved the song, had a good performance of it, and that it was worthy of going on the record."

Phillips maintains that the split with Kimble was difficult but necessary. "It's something we started talking about a couple of years back. In the beginning, the idea of working without outside input was gratifying because we were allowed to find our own voice. But three albums down the road, we felt it was time to bring the element of surprise back into the process. There was always a certain amount of tension [with Kimble]. I think the three of us knew when we had finished Copperopolis that we had completed something, a trilogy of sorts. We didn't know what the next chapter would become at the time, but we knew that it felt like an ending."


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