Album Review: Willie Phoenix / Backstage Rain - by Colin Gawel

Listen while you read! - Click here for a Willie Spotify Playlist

Listening party for Backstage Rain Sunday October 20th @ Little Rock Bar (944 N. 4th 43201) 6-8pm

Willie Phoenix releases new music at a pace that must make even fellow Ohio rock n roll legend Guided By Voices mainman Bob Pollard jealous. Except Willie releases are usually just handed out in a bar or suddenly appear online with little notice. There is no promo. No vinyl . No budget.  His latest - Backstage Rain - by Willie Phoenix and The Soul Underground (some releases are just Willie Phoenix) recently popped up on Spotify and it’s one of his best. Ever. Keep in mind, Willie has been releasing records since the late 60’s, and has literally thousands of unreleased tracks in his vaults as well. If this sounds strange, then welcome to the mysterious world of Willie Phoenix . Click here to read an excellent story by Joel Oliphint to learn a little more.  

The album opens with the rollicking Boogie Loud. As the songs hits it chorus of “Boogie Loud, Boogie Proud” Willie’s voice is so strong I’m literally concerned it may shred the speakers of my car stereo. This album is not mixed for earbuds, only woofers do it justice.  Somewhere in his mid-sixties, Mr. Phoenix’s voice still puts to shame younger blues purists/pretenders like The Black Keys and White Stripes. He has never sounded better. 

Midway through the first song, just as the listener is getting comfortable, it’s takes an unexpected turn into pop psychedelia. While shocking to a first time listener, longtime fans of Willie know he is a master of many a rock n roll genre and is not afraid to jump between them. 

The second track, Drivin’ with the Blues, sounds just like the title suggests. While it’s pretty much a straightforward blues romp, it’s interesting to note the lyric “driving with the blues since 1992.” One gets the sense that Willie has been through some hard times in the years following.  Happy Blues is a Bo Diddley-inspired burst of garage rock but it’s the middle tracks on the record where Backstage Rain moves into rare air.

It’s Gonna Rain  is the kind of blues people sell their soul for at the crossroads. This isn’t your corner bar band blues.  It could be the best track by Buddy Guy or Black Sabbath. And remember Willie isn’t a follower, he is a contemporary of those acts. His father, the Reverend Willie Creigh Sr. played with Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. In fact, Sonny is Willie’s Godfather. Willie was invited to join Muddy’s band following a show in Cincinnati in 1976 but declined to continue his own path. This is the real thing. And the guitar playing is ...well…I'd sell my soul to play like that. 

Just as I am recovering from It’s Gonna Rain, the next song, Tell the World About Love, is an upbeat Stax record romp that Otis Redding could have cut. I fully realize what I am going to write next and I mean it: In small doses, Willie Phoenix is as good as Buddy Guy AND Otis Reading. How many artists can say that?

Big Whiskey Woman is another blazing Hendrix-esque rocker that I find myself going back to over and over. It sounds like a lost gem from the Willie Phoenix Flower Machine project from thirty years ago.  White Rabbit Flies an Airplane follows and it is the only misstep on the record. It might have made for a nifty b-side, but it’s in over its head surrounded by these songs.

Because… the next track, I’m Flying, is also a stunner. We get the real Willie Phoenix singing about his town of Columbus, Ohio and his life of surviving only as an artist and what that entails. Yes, when I say Willie Phoenix has never earned a penny except through music, that is exactly the truth and all the good & bad associated with that kind of life. This might be the most honest record Willie has released since Nothin’ But Rock N Roll

At this point I should add that this record is self-produced, as all his records have been since he left A&M Records in the 1983. Despite his current blues leanings, as a producer The Beatles are never far from Willie’s mind. The fabs inform almost everything he puts to tape . I suppose I should include The Kinks and Stones too. Perhaps British Invasion-inspired blues would be the proper description of this Backstage Rain on Spotify. Because Willie records with a limited budget, the sounds don’t always sound as slick as they might, but the ideas are almost always on the money.  Willie is a fantastic producer and all sorts of little surprises reveal themselves on repeat listening. (I attached a couple Watershed tunes in the playlist that Willie produced when we were just kids. He did an amazing job)

Anyway, I just hit the high points so go give the damn thing a listen already.  If you want a deep dive, get on Facebook and visit: Shadowlords - The Willie Phoenix Fanpages. It’s where fellow Phoenix-ologists gather to trade all things Willie. Even better, join us at Little Rock Bar on Sunday October 20th from 6-8 pm for a Backstage Rain listening party. Bring your rare Willie records and stories, too. 

Colin Gawel founded Pencilstorm and wrote this at Colin’s Coffee. He plays in the band Watershed and Willie Phoenix produced their first record back in the day. He is currently working on the Willie Phoenix Radio Hour with Brian Phillips, Ricki C. and Biggie. 

For further reading, click here for The Ballad of Willie Phoenix by Ricki C.