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Buffalo Roams : Grant Lee Phillips' Folk-Rock Trio Goes With the Flow but Never Loses Its General Direction


When Grant Lee Buffalo hits a stage, set lists have a way of flying out the window, and song arrangements are apt to be altered at a moment's notice. Even the group's instruments are expendable.

When leader Grant Lee Phillips began having problems with his guitar at one show, he and his bandmates quickly turned the rock tune at hand into a guitar-less rap exercise.

It's all part of the way the L.A.-based folk-rock trio strives to make each concert a singular experience.

"The shows have been pretty chaotic up to date," Phillips said with a chuckle by phone from a Boulder, Colo., tour stop. "When we were in Toronto, I realized mid-set that I was having a difficult time hearing our drummer, Joey [Peters]. So I basically got the biggest, burliest guys out of the audience to come up on stage to bring him [and his drum kit] to the front, onto the apron of the stage. That was kind of a beautiful moment. We do whatever comes to mind."

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Grant Lee Buffalo is simply a ragged-to-the-bone band incapable of discipline and seriousness. On record, Grant Lee Buffalo can sound downright contemplative and arty. Singer-songwriter Phillips is a thoughtful and literate tunesmith known for trenchant social commentaries and wistful, romantic songs about small-town life, reflecting his Stockton upbringing.

The band's third and latest album, "Copperopolis," moves easily from such cuts as "Homespun," a catchy pop-rock song that takes aim at the militia movement, to "Better for Us," a sepia-toned tale that recounts a memorable boyhood experience.

The album's rich mood is established by instrumental colors that generally don't show up in the band's bass-drum-guitar live presentation. Clarinet, vibraphone, violin and a secondhand synthesizer from a thrift store are employed on the almost cinematic-sounding "Copperopolis," named for a once-thriving mining town in Northern California.

"We were naturally heading toward a more melodic record and a more arranged record," Phillips said. "Each record has become a little more lush, a little more involved. This might be the pinnacle of that."

"Copperopolis" is Grant Lee Buffalo's most elaborately conceived album. Yet the group still managed to churn out the record during a relatively brief six-week stay in the studio.

The fact that Paul Kimble, the band's bassist and keyboard player, has produced all of its work has facilitated the album-making process. Phillips says the group has benefited enormously from its self-contained creative environment.

He says the band members' communication in the studio has become "almost a psychic relationship," which is why they are reluctant to take record company suggestions to work with an outside producer.

Phillips, however, did alter his songwriting process on "Copperopolis" to appease some listeners.

"Fans of ours made note that there were no lyrics printed on 'Mighty Joe Moon' [the group's second album, from 1994] " Phillips said. "That was basically because those lyrics never touched the page. The tape recorder was my means of bringing those songs along.

"With this album, I thought I should do something that holds water on a page," he said. "But I find now that maybe [that was a mistake] and that maybe I want to write again with the natural rhythm of how I talk."


Even though Grant Lee Buffalo garnered plenty of positive press notices in the U.S. for its 1993 debut album, "Fuzzy," so far the band has proved to be more popular in Europe.

The group has long received encouragement from more established and/or commercially successful peers. Early in its five-year career, Grant Lee Buffalo embarked on a club tour opening for Paul Westerberg, the former leader of the Replacements. This was followed by opening spots on large-scale tours headlined by Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and, most recently, Smashing Pumpkins.

Grant Lee Buffalo has formed a particularly strong bond with R.E.M. (R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe once called GLB his favorite band.)

"That [1995] tour with R.E.M. will always be one of my fondest memories," Phillips said. "It was kind of an endless party. . . . They supported us and endorsed us and treated us as equal. For that I will be eternally thankful."

The three musicians also had the honor of playing at R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck's 1993 wedding. Kimble once said that gig caused them more anxiety than any of its previous performances.

"First impressions count for a lot, and we hadn't played [for] that set before," Phillips said. "People were being exposed to the power of our wedding band. . . . We basically provided the wedding music along with tacky tuxedos. We did everything from 'My Way' to 'Those Were the Days.' We pulled out all the stops."

* Grant Lee Buffalo and the Connells play Friday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $15-$17. (714) 496-8930.

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