Jesse Locks: Fast Rattler honors Utah Phillips
“You don’t lose someone like my father,” says Brendan Phillips, 31, the son of the late singer/storyteller U. Utah Phillips. “He’s still here in all these great ways.”
Four years ago, while staying at his mother’s home in Spokane, Wash., Brendan discovered a weathered copy of Utah’s songbook “Starlight on the Rails.” He was so inspired by this collection of “beautiful and amazing songs” he returned to Nevada City and formed Fast Rattler* with Joe Andratti on pedal steel guitar and Allegra Ziffle on violin, banjo and accordion. The trio learned and in some cases, even wrote the music to some songs Utah had never performed. Russell Gores later joined the group on mandolin, spoons, saw, glockenspiel, and bass.
The group took 30 of Utah’s songs and pieced together a set of their favorites. Brendan, favoring a more upbeat folk melody similar to that of contemporary musicians like Will Oldham and Iron and Wine, blended his own musical tastes with the traditional ones of his father to give a fresh take on the songs. The group performed, sometimes with Utah, at a handful of well-received music festivals.
“He (Utah) was a singular kind of person. He was simple and very direct in telling a story,” explains Brendan. “He was singing from a personal place and put thought into what he was singing about. He wrote songs to last.”
For many new listeners, including Brendan, it was Utah’s 1996 collaboration with renowned artist Ani DiFranco that exposed the significance and relevance of Utah’s songs to a younger generation. The same stories that Utah told nearly three decades ago are still happening and Brendan intends to keep them alive for audiences and other folk musicians.
“Fast Rattler wasn’t ever something I wanted to do professionally, but instead it was for my own process. It first helped me understand where my father was coming from and now it has helped with my grieving,” says Brendan, who works in the governor’s office in Olympia, WA. “People still want to know these songs and stories, and it’s important to me to share them.”
Fast Rattler performs Friday at the Miners Foundry as part of a week-long West Coast tour. The group will have a demo available at the show and has plans to record a full-length album after this string of shows. Brendan’s good friend and distinguished songwriter Lee Bob Watson will open the show and join Fast Rattler on stage.
Jesse Locks is a freelance writer who has worked for such esteemed and well-loved publications as Arthur Magazine, Seattle Weekly, and Thrasher Magazine. You can reach her at email@example.com.
* “I’ll flag a fast rattler and ride it on down BOYS! They’re runnin’ the bums out of town.” This line taken from Utah’s song “Larimer Street” is where Fast Rattler got its name.
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