Singer and blues guitar virtuoso Phil Brown was classically trained on the violin in his teens. His life as a session man required him to sit in on countless recording sessions. He was behind hits, too, writing songs for Cher and Pat Benatar.
But recently, with his trio atop the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, he played the leader easily. He was reinterpreting Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9,” in his usual style: electric guitar and no pick, which he said gives the tune more power.
Two weeks prior, at the Myriad Botanical Gardens’ “Sunday Twilight Concert Series,” Brown finger-picked through Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” His sense of musical past is always immediate, and he measures himself strictly against them.
“They are called classics because they last longer. They give you something,” Brown said. “That was a time when music directed the way we looked at things. Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, the Stones — they are modern-day Mozarts. There’s a feeling epitomized in that kind of music.
But we have the same feelings, in my opinion, we had back then. We all want to be loved, we want to lean back and stand up and go, ‘This is a pretty good way to do it.’”
No matter the venue, there is an undeniable something that people feel when they catch Brown at work. The burly bartenders at Rococo love him, where he plays quieter treatments of Cream and Burt Bacharach songs behind a book of sheet music. The Blue Door’s Greg Johnson booked Brown after meeting him only once. Even local indie upstarts like Dustin Prinz and Black Canyon paid excited respects to his guitar skills when they opened for him.
It’s like what George Plimpton once said about Norman Mailer: “There’s definitely a large field that comes off Norman. Even sitting with him he’s absolutely at his ease, the energy is there, something almost palpable.”
Sitting with Brown, he’s calm, but he’s super-connected and takes you along. One minute, he’s talking about his birthplace in Los Alamos, N.M.: “I’m from a town that destroys people,” he said. There, nuns trained him rigorously in grammar and it built a foundation. He discusses his 26 years of sobriety: “I can either sabotage myself or I save myself.”
All these experiences subtly define his intricately produced new album, “Imagine This,” songs from which can be heard Friday at The Blue Door. Particularly moving is “Blessing in Disguise,” where he comes to the conclusion that “No one knows how the journey will end / We are only here to help someone else find their way back again.”
Having survived the music industry’s trenches, Brown attributes his staying power to a hunger that thrives on accomplishment.
“Whether it’s recognized or not, you do it because it’s inside your gut,” he said. “The music that you play and the life that you live demands a serenity of sorts, an emotional sobriety. You’re not trying to manipulate something.”