Wicker, the title of the debut solo CD by former Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band musician Josh Phillips, is a spin on the phrase “we care.” Which might be a hard sell amid the politically charged, hard-news-hungry post-9/11 cynicism—but from the disc’s opening organ strains on the song “You are Loved”, Phillips (fronting his band Josh Phillips Folk Festival) proves himself to be unflappably genuine. And his positive, inclusive, everything’s-all-right lyrics are as contagious as Marlo Thomas’ ode to childhood, Free to be … You and Me. (Only with innate cool, like De La Soul, circa 3 Feet High and Rising.)
Phillips left the Booty Band both for his own longevity and for his creative vision. “There was a moment of realization that I couldn’t do that anymore,” he admits to Xpress. “I couldn’t talk after shows from the screaming; I couldn’t walk after shows from the jumping.”
Wicker (Folk Festival, 2008), is song driven and more introspective than any of the Booty Band’s party-pumping funk numbers. “If you live that deep and you deep and you feel that deep, it’ll be for you,” he sings in “Be For You.” But the album possesses the Caribbean grooves, upbeat rhythms, vintage keyboards and driving horns that immediately grab a listener’s attention. And there are plenty of catchy hooks and singable refrains (“A little on down the road, who knows, who knows, who knows? Gimme a little something good,” goes the refrain of the infectious ragtime number, “Little Something Baby,” featuring the vocals and guitar work of Woody Wood).
Phillips knows that his disc is stylistically all over the map: It veers from juke-joint piano to hammered dulcimer, from raw gospel to smoldering reggae. But there is an underlying thread—a soulful optimism woven through the tapestry of richly layered sound—that binds the album.
“It’s about looking for something deeper in life,” Phillips notes. “I save my writing for when I’m in a mood to write that way.” Similarly, he recorded the songs in sections, allowing time in between studio sessions to reflect on the tracks and the direction of the project.
“We’ve redone entire songs,” the musician reveals. “I didn’t hold back because I knew I’d regret it. This was my baby, so I did have the luxury to have a crazy idea and act on it.”
Another luxury afforded to Phillips was a full cast of guest musicians willing to lend their talents to Wicker. Suzanna Baum (who also performs with the Booty Band, Big Money Band and Laura Reed & Deep Pocket) fills out the vocals with supple harmonies and background vocals; Justin Perkins (Toubab Krewe) plays kora and djembe; Bryon McMurry (Acoustic Syndicate) adds banjo to a tune that rollicks like a sea shanty to the beat of what sounds like a frame drum by River Guerguerian (Free Planet Radio, Fatty’s Jazz Trio).
Since the album is community-oriented by nature, when it came time to release it, Phillips wanted to keep it close to home. “When Erin Scholze asked me to headline LAAFF, and the date was the same as when I wanted to release it anyway, it all aligned in a cool way,” he says.
Josh Phillips Folk Festival headlines the Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival Sunday, Sept. 7, on the Greenlife Electric Stage at 9:15 p.m.