If all the musicians that Brad Phillips has accompanied on stage, recorded with in the studio, or produced albums for in the past decade show up for his show at the Ark on September 29, there won’t be any room for the rest of us. Phillips has long been the area’s gold-standard sideman. He’s played violin, mandolin, and guitar with an amazing variety and number of musicians in a broad range of venues and settings, from intimate house concerts with Brian Vander Ark (of Verve Pipe fame) to gigs with Joshua Davis (The Voice finalist) to touring with Jeff Daniels and accompanying Stevie Wonder at the Palace of Auburn Hills and Pat Metheny at the Detroit International Jazz Festival. And that’s just in Michigan. Phillips travels widely, performing, recording, and teaching with, among others, fiddler extraordinaire Mark O’Connor.
There are plenty of reasons why Phillips is in such high demand as a sideman, arranger, and record producer. For starters, he’s got chops up the wazoo. On violin, mandolin, and guitar he’s got the tone, the speed, and the improvisatory creativity–he can do whatever is asked of him but can also suggest possibilities that his bandleaders never imagined. He can play fiddle tunes as authentically as any of the traditional masters, but he’s also been known to take Bill Monroe’s prototypical bluegrass tune “Wheel Hoss,” rock the melody between two different keys every other measure, reharmonize it, and play it in 7/8 time for good measure–and make it sound like that’s how the tune ought to have been played all along. And, perhaps above all, he knows how to be a sideman–knows how to fit into the music without hogging the spotlight but also not hide his light under a bushel basket when it’s his turn to solo.
And for this show at the Ark, it’s his turn to solo. “I have only done a solo show a handful of times in the past,” he says. “And while I have played the Ark countless times over the years with various artists, this will be my first headliner show there.” Accustomed as he is to making music collaboratively, though, it won’t be a completely solo show. “This will also be functioning as my graduate recital for U of M.” (Phillips is halfway through his master’s program there.) “So it’s likely that I’ll involve some of my colleagues from school, as well as other good friends from the Michigan music scene.”
But every seat in the audience being filled by musicians Phillips has worked with? It’s not gonna happen. Daniels will probably be at work in what he calls his “other career,” and Stevie Wonder and Pat Metheny and the rest are likely also playing that night–some of them undoubtedly wishing Phillips was free to join them on stage. Fortunately that leaves room for the rest of us to hear this remarkable musician.