Phil Cook steps into the bandleader role to re-create a Ry Cooder favorite | Music Feature | Indy Week

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Phil Cook steps into the bandleader role to re-create a Ry Cooder favorite



If they don't mind waking up early, full-time touring musicians often have their days off the road or away from the studio entirely to themselves. With no desk to commute to or deadline to beat, a day off can be a refuge for relaxation or an opportunity for solitary pursuits free from outside pressure.

Five years ago, Phil Cook enjoyed a season of such mornings. Megafaun—the restless and experimental folk group he founded with his younger brother, Bradley, and longtime friend Joe Westerlund—had begun the transition into full-time status, earning several off days just before their tour schedule ramped up. When his wife, Heather, left to teach school each day, Cook and his dog, Willie, had their Durham home to themselves. Cook would play guitar and do household chores, often to the sound of a record on the turntable. More often than not, he spun Boomer's Story, an overlooked 1972 LP from roots-rock progenitor Ry Cooder.

"I had this little record shelf that held three records," Cook remembers. "It had Aretha Franklin's first recordings from when she was 17 or 16 with a big band, and Ry Cooder's Boomer's Story and this compilation of gospel. It was a good rotation, and then I just started putting on Boomer's Story every day. That became every morning, and I was laughing, 'Jesus Christ, I'm still putting that record on.'"

On Friday, Cook will commemorate his half decade of intense admiration with a tribute to Boomer's Story at Haw River Ballroom. With a band of local favorites dubbed the Guitarheels, Cook will re-create all but one of the album's tracks. It's a fitting if challenging exercise for Cook, who explores American music with the same enthusiasm as Cooder but has never served as a proper frontman in a band.

Both as a solitary picker under the name Phil Cook and His Feat and as a part of Megafaun's far-reaching folk-rock, Cook's work vibrates with an earnest and exuberant curiosity. Cooder's vintage albums exude a similar sense of joyous discovery, as he revels in musical diversity and stylistic distillations.

"The '70s was just this whole period of him exploring so many sounds. He was doing it with this crew in L.A. that were incredible studio musicians, but you can tell how much fun they're having," Cook explains. "It's all about interaction. It's so playful, and it's got so much grinning going on. That's what I do when I play music: I'm grinning the whole fucking time I'm onstage. I'm so happy, and I need that communion to be happening. That's why I play music."

Boomer's Story is all about roots—musical, geographical and otherwise—and what they mean. The wayfarer in the title track waffles between roaming and settling down; he's ultimately charmed away by the whistles of trains rolling by. The haunting, piano-led version of "Rally 'Round the Flag" repurposes a rousing Civil War battle hymn as a tender ballad that espouses the potential resiliency of the human spirit.

Appropriately, some of Cook's motivation for this Boomer's Story re-creation stems from his desire to strengthen his own roots within, and connections to, the local music community. With Megafaun and a bevy of other touring and recording concerns, Cook spends lots of time on the road, sometimes alienating him from his beloved Durham. (He explains this anxiety as he enjoys tacos al pastor outside La Vaquita, his favorite taqueria.) The players he enlisted for his Guitarheels are area musicians he wanted to reconnect with in a new context.

Chandler Holt and John Teer, for instance, are two-fourths of the genre-bending bluegrass outfit Chatham County Line. About a year and a half ago, Cook ventured to Durham's Motorco Music Hall on a Sunday afternoon to catch a brunch set from their rock 'n' roll side project, The Jackets. Before the set, Holt told Cook that they were covering "Boomer's Story." Thrilled, Cook jumped onstage during the song, contributing backing vocals and a harmonica solo. Afterward, the new friends quickly learned that Cooder's classic was a mutual favorite. The idea for the Boomer's Story tribute was hatched.

The rest of the Heels come from similarly natural connections. Cook has often played with Durham's Hiss Golden Messenger, appearing on both the new LP, Haw, and with the band live, locking into drummer Terry Lonergan's signature groove. Lonergan will add drums to Boomer's Story. Mandolin Orange's Andrew Marlin has grown into a close confidant of late, too, with Cook serving as a session musician on records Marlin produced. Cook's brother, Bradley, will play bass, while Squeeze This—an accordion duo that features the siblings' father—will solo during Cooder's Latin-tinged "Maria Elena."

"Phil embodies so much of what Ry Cooder set out to do," Bradley offers. "He's an incredibly musical person, and he's never been in a leadership role necessarily because that's not the way his brain is wired. It's wired to pick up any musical instrument that's in front of him and just play, and that's a lot of how Ry Cooder existed."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Off the shelf."

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