Is there a more accurate album title this year than Phil Cook’s People Are My Drug? By now, our love for Phil Cook should come to nobody’s surprise - the Hiss Golden Messenger and Megafaun guitarist has been on our podcast twice to talk life and his love of people and connection. But take one listen to his sophomore album, and you’ll get the same notion that everyone at Cook’s sold-out Songbyrd already knew - he can create some damn uplifting music. Cook drew heavily from gospel and Mississippi Delta music as well as contributions from friends like Mountain Man (which includes Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath) and Richmond’s No BS! Brass Band. It’s a considerate and uplifting collection of songs for people going through struggles of their own.
After watching Cook perform, it’s absolutely clear that people, indeed, are his drug. People singing and clapping along with the set opener “Steampowered Blues” made it feel more like a campfire sing-along with friends than a crowd of unrelated people paying tickets to see someone play in an underground room. The ebullient Cook traded laughs with his bandmates all night, especially Tamisha Waden, who was just as joyous on backing vocals and tambourine.
But what elevates Cook’s shows above the rest is that he doesn't see his music just as a celebration for celebration's sake. In his words, “music has a transformative power to ask.” He spoke highly of his musical inspirations, the unrivaled Pops Staples and the Staples Singers, who sang about justice and truth in the classic gospel style without singing about Jesus. In this vein, he gave a thoughtful monologue and plea to the crowd, imploring everyone to look deeper at their inherent biases and to stand up for those who are powerless in our communities to do so themselves. His band then launched into “Another Mother's Son,” a song that is as solemn for all those lost to police killings as it is hopeful and optimistic that we can bring an end to it by no longer remaining silent on the issue. The final minute of the song transformed Songbyrd into the French Quarter, complete with clapping, sing-alongs (“No more silence!”), and some gospel-infused vocals from Waden. This is how Cook fights adversity - with a few friends and a whole lot of optimism. His effusive personality (and those of his bandmates as well) is infectious, and for an hour or so, we all got to smile and sing along too.
People Are My Drug is out now through Psychic Hotline and Thirty Tigers.
Opening for Phil Cook was Durham-based folk musician Jake Xerxes Fussell, who grew up listening to music from the Mississippi Delta and carries the tradition well. His laid-back fingerpicking style on songs like “Jump for Joy” make you feel like you’ve been transported down to the Delta yourself. His latest album What in the Natural World is out now through Paradise of Bachelors.