Life rolls at a steady pace for N.C. songwriter and bandleader Josh Phillips these days, and he couldn't be happier about it. Fronting a now-solid ensemble of musicians under the band name The Josh Phillips Folk Festival, he gladly avoids the fevered pitch, jagged tour schedules, and hectic pace of Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band, his previous musical collaboration.
Phillips sang and played guitar for five years with the Asheville-based Booty Band — an act that still enjoys a notorious reputation for flamboyance, stage energy, and party vibes.
After a childhood on Long Island, Phillips moved to Charleston when he was 14. After attending the Academic Magnet School, he attended college in Asheville, where Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band was in the works, and regularly embarked on small, financially successful tours across the Southeast and down the Gulf Coast and back. The constant travel eventually grinded Phillips' spirit down, however.
"We had different ideas on how we should tour," Phillips says of his final year with the band — a period when they would regularly tour for a few days at a time, return home for a few days, then do it all over again. "I felt like I was always the one holding them back because I thought the weekend warrior thing is not the way to go. Half of my life was really different from the other half. You have to do what's good for you."
Phillips stepped away from the band and started compiling his own musical ideas and song sketches for what would eventually take shape as the Folk Festival. The band formed (very loosely) just under two years ago. Last year, they released Wicker — a brilliant debut studio album recorded in three quick sessions at Asheville's acclaimed Echo Mountain Studio. In its own accidental way, Wicker captures a lot of the style and sound of the mountain town's diverse music scene.
"It kind of happened haphazardly," Phillips says of the Folk Festival's earliest collaborations. "I had no intention of breaking from the Booty Band at the time. I'm always writing songs, and I had a bunch that didn't fit the mold of what the Booty Band was doing. What really pushed me to do the solo thing was having a small window of time to do three quick sessions at Echo Mountain. It developed in the studio. I'd never really played with most of the musicians before. I taught them the songs in the studio after giving the demos of the song ideas. I think that's part of the reason Wicker came out so well — it was totally raw and made up on the spot."
But Wicker doesn't sound very raw in the sense of musical ideas and technical execution. It sounds thoroughly thought-out, carefully arranged, and skillfully executed — especially the smooth organ sounds, additional brass, and extra-worldly percussion. Some songs are reggae-tinged and groove at an even pace. Others are organ-driven soul-funk gems in the vein of the mid '70s hits in the Motown and Stax catalogs. There are even a few acoustic guitar-based folk-rockers in the album's songlist as well.
This late-summer trip is the first major tour for Phillips' new band. The Folk Festival spent last week supporting Boston fusion/funk band Dopapod in the New York and New England area. The bands switch places on the bill for some of the Southern shows, including Wednesday's gig at the Pour House.
"It's going really well on the road," says Phillips. "It's awesome. This isn't the first project for most of the players. We've all been through it. We're older and more responsible. We're all smarter for it. This project is going better than ones we've all done in the past, so we're really excited about it."
The current Folk Festival lineup features bassist Elijah Cramer, drummer Nick Hope, and guitarists Casey Cramer and Rob Russell. Special guest vocalist Debrissa McKinney and organist/keyboardist Ryan Burns — both of Asheville band Laura Reed & Deep Pocket — are on board for this tour as well.
"Actually we haven't toured heavily together until this trip," he says. "We did mostly weekend things here and there, and we did a little run with 2-Live Crew, and a little run when Wicker first came out. When I left Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band, I had it in me that I didn't want to be a touring band anymore, and I didn't want to be on the road all the time. We usually said 'no' instead of 'yes' to gigs, and the prerequisite for us taking a gig was us being super-excited about it.
"Now that we're finally in the mood where we want to tour, we'll try to go out for a few weeks at a time and travel more intelligently," he adds. "We want to have a smart plan, and make the band be a part of our life, rather than having the band be our life."