Taking the BMI Stage in the early afternoon on the final day of the 2018 Austin City Limits Music Festival, North Carolina rocker Phil Cook and his three-piece Guitarheels band probably felt right at home. It was as humid as all get-out and the grounds were damp from overnight rains, which felt fitting for a rocker whose soulful sounds conjure up the swampy spirit of the Deep South.
"This next one's a New Orleans song," Cook said as he introduced a tune by the late Crescent City legend Allen Toussaint, following it with the Randy Newman classic "Sail Away." The cover choices were a clue that while Cook gravitates toward music that's deeply steeped in Southern traditions, culturally he’s progressive and inclusive.
Introducing “Sail Away,” which Newman wrote in reference to the American slave trade of centuries past, Cook said he plays the song because it’s about something “important for Americans to face about our past.” Later, he took a moment to ask the audience to “talk to someone who doesn’t look like you, doesn’t act like you, doesn’t speak like you. Do it today.”
If Cook was preaching to the converted, he did so with joy in his heart and glorious jams in his music. Drawing from his new album “People Are My Drug” as well as 2015’s “Southland Mission,” Cook worked elements of blues, gospel, old-school rock & roll into a mix that’s not unlike what Austin’s Kevin Russell is doing with his band Shinyribs, if on a tighter, smaller scale.
Sunday’s show was the finale of a three-show weekend for Cook and his band, who played Friday at Sam’s Town Point and Saturday opening for fellow ACL Fest act Trampled by Turtles at Scoot Inn. He gave Sam’s quite a compliment, calling it “the coolest bar in Austin.”
Cook has been here quite a bit recently, as he also plays with North Carolina roots outfit Hiss Golden Messenger. He first came to prominence playing with Justin Vernon in DeYarmond Edison before Vernon rose to Grammy-winning stardom as Bon Iver. Cook’s own music is less indie, more rootsy — and if that’s maybe a harder sell for the overall ACL Fest aesthetic these days, it plays right into the deep well of Austin’s music history. He’s welcome back any time.