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Kearns Tells All About Phoebe — But Who Is ‘The ‘Poetry Man?’

Phoebe Snow Rolling Cover
Phoebe Snow ‘Rolling Stone’ cover from June 5, 1975.
At about five-thirty on Sunday afternoon, Philip Kearns and the band got tuned-up to play and pay “A Tribute to Phoebe Snow.” This would be the fourth time that Kearns had performed this tribute to his ex-wife, who died a little over four years ago at age 60. He’d originally done the show as a one-off performance in Greenwich Village about a year ago, but the success of that show led to a performance in downtown Winston-Salem, which led to another performance at Greensboro’s Carolina Theatre.

This time he was playing at the Luna Lounge & Tiki Bar, a nice enough small bar at the northern boundary of Winston-Salem’s gallery district, a far cry from the Duplex Cabaret, where he first performed the show, or the venerable Carolina. But the show was for charity, to raise funds for the North Star LGBT Center, a cause dear to his heart. So, as they say, “The show must go on.”

The performance opened with tunes culled from Snow’s eponymous first album, which she was recording at the time that she and Kearns met. Kearns handled vocals and played guitar, backed by Mir Yarfitz on cello, his longtime partner Marc Bryson on piano, and Mike Chamis (who along with wife Vicki is co-owner of the Luna Lounge and Tiki Bar) on bass.

Although Kearns’ arrangements remain true to Snow’s recordings, he wisely makes no attempt to take the “tribute band” approach and offer note-by-note renditions of her work, a task that would be nearly impossible for a variety of reasons, but mainly because Snow was a vocal stylist with a rich contralto voice that could hit high notes as if she were a native soprano. In other words, the only person who could copy Phoebe Snow would be…well, Phoebe Snow.

Besides, it doesn’t matter. Snow’s career didn’t produce a string of number one hits “with a bullet” so simple as to get stuck in people’s heads — her music was too rich and complex for that. Except for die hard Snow fans, other than songs she covered (such as Sam Cooke’s “Let the Good Times Roll,” which Kearns used to open the first set), most are probably hearing these songs for the first time.

Except for “Poetry Man,” her one certifiable hit.

The music was great (yup, that’s a thumbs up). After all, not only was Snow a musicians’ musician, she was an accomplished songwriter as well. But the real charm of this tribute comes between songs, as Kearns spins yarns and anecdotes to connect the songs with what was happening in Snow’s (and his) life at the time they were written or recorded. For instance, Kearns played “Poetry Man” early in the first set and tells the audience, “I am not the poetry man. The song is not written about me. I know who the poetry man is, but I’ll never tell.”

We also learn other tidbits. Such as the fact that early on in her career, one of her singles caught on and topped the chart in San Francisco, but got little to no traction anywhere else — one of the odd things that happens in the crazy world of music marketing. Or that, also early on, Snow worked with Leon Russell and had something of a crush on him, prompting her to write a couple of songs about him.

Kearns’ and the band’s first set contained, almost exclusively, songs from the platinum selling “Phoebe Snow” album. The second set (which, alas, I didn’t get to see) pulled mostly from the two albums that followed, the gold selling “Second Childhood” and “It Looks Like Snow.” According to Kearns, the lyrics on most of Snow’s compositions on these two albums were influenced by their relationship — which only makes sense, since that relationship would eventually result in both a marriage and a child.

Two of the songs performed during the second set were co-written by Snow and Kearns, “Fat Chance” and “Stand Up On The Rock,” and he opened the set with his own composition: “Human Rights” from his 2005 solo album.

If there was a weakness to the performance, it was the small room, with acoustics that are less than ideal and with the distractions that are part-and-parcel with barroom performances. Kearns, no newcomer to the club scene (he met Snow while performing at a club in New Jersey), handled the distractions like the veteran he is — with a good natured aplomb that added to the show’s charm.

Indeed, in spite of the distractions, the audience was mostly attentive — a good thing since a performance piece such as A Tribute to Phoebe Snow can’t really work without an attentive audience. It’s also good to know that although the audience was disappointingly small, enough money was raised to pay next month’s cable bill for NorthStar LGBT Community Center.