Sensory Overload: Phil Cook

From the August 2, 2012 edition

One of the most off-putting experiences for a culture consumer is when an artist consciously, strenuously attempts to present his or herself a certain way that just doesn’t fit. Playing games with identity can yield marvelous results in pop music, but more often than not, a front is an affront to the senses.

Phil Cook is not like this. He seems to excel at being himself, and he certainly enjoys it. Saturday at Skully’s, that approach was mostly working for Cook, a soul singer and sometimes rapper who’s hard to pin down but easy to appreciate.

Cook isn’t what you would call a boundary-buster, but he also doesn’t box himself into the rules of any particular scene. Online, he describes his output in vague but suggestive terms: “Phil Cook is dope.” There’s real freedom in that mantra, and he uses it to his advantage.

Some might say he abuses it. Cook opened with back to back covers of Fun.’s “We Are Young” and No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak.” Catchy tunes, both of them, but definitely stretching the definition of “dope.” It wasn’t exactly a “Cee-Lo covers Danzig” moment.

Cook’s originals fared better. He and his pair of backup singers flexed their microphone muscle on a quick set built on simple hooks that catch on quickly. The chorus of a rap-infused party rocker called “Everything” was just the word “everything” repeated at length, call-and-response style. Though it’s unclear what the song was about (uh, everything?), it would be lots of fun at a wedding.

His band was in full-on late-night TV mode, pumping originals and covers alike with humongous crowd-pleasing gusto. This was a six-string bass, Guitar Player shredding, “Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce my band” kind of affair.

Though this music could have come from anywhere in America, it was seasoned with local references that suggest Cook might make a fine ambassador for Columbus someday. He and one of his sidekicks rocked Homage T-shirts (and an Homage sticker on a pant leg for good measure), and Cook almost certainly sang the lyric “Pass that OYO.”

The performance left a lot of room for refinement, but there’s a lot to like about a charismatic showman letting his talents fly.