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Experimental Folk: Shawn Phillips, Tom Jones

Bill Graham once called him the best-kept secret in the business. This hidden gem also gave a skinny young singer named Joni Mitchell guitar lessons, co-wrote songs with Donovan, sang with the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper and has released 17 albums over a recording career that spans 35 years. Chances are, you still haven't heard of Shawn Phillips.

Mixing deft guitar work, a wide-ranging voice and deeply observant lyrics, Phillips was perhaps the most talented of the singer-songwriters of the early 1970s. While pop-friendly contemporaries such as James Taylor and Cat Stevens went on to multiplatinum fame, Phillips remained stubbornly uncompromising in his artistic vision. He recorded virtually every genre under the sun, shifting from folk, jazz and pop to synth-heavy dance tracks and medieval English ballads. On the stage, his spacey philosophies about life and the earth also made him an enigmatic presence to fans and the press.

At best, Phillips manages to take often familiar topics and infuse them with uncommon intelligence (check out "We" and "I Took a Walk") or to produce simply outstanding rollicking numbers (such as "Victoria Emmanuele" or "Hey Miss Lonely," which have jaunty tempos that recall Schoolhouse Rock tunes). Other material is a bit more portentous (such as "L Ballad" and "She Was WaitingŠ"). Phillips's extensive traveling and living around the globe have given him a perspective more appropriate for novel-writing than four-minute song constructions.

Many of his records have been re-released recently. However, if it's an introduction to Phillips you're after, a compilation culled from his A&M sessions is probably best. Today Phillips continues to tour solo around the world, but he makes his permanent home in Austin, living with his six cats and working as a volunteer firefighter. CrazyŠ (Bob Ruggiero) Shawn Phillips performs Tuesday, February 8, at the Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. For more information, call (713)528-5999. Tom Jones -- Though it has been a long time since he was on the business end of a panty toss, Tom Jones hasn't lost his appeal. Even at age 59 (he'll be 60 in June), Jones can still belt out those personalized hits such as "She's a Lady," "What's New Pussycat?" and "It's Not Unusual" with the same show-stopping exuberance he had when he was a youngster.

Things haven't always been rosy for Jones. But after singing in various Vegas lounges throughout the late '70s and early '80s, Jones got another big break in 1988. That's when The Art of Noise asked him to collaborate on an industrial-dance cover of Prince's "Kiss." What was originally conceived as a campy throwaway version of an erotic tune later was transformed into a big hit. It also rebooted Jones's career. Now, mothers and daughters are sitting side by side at his concerts, at least thinking about throwing their bloomers and Gstrings at him, if not actually doing it.

Even though Jones tries to cater to younger audiences, particularly with efforts such as his 1994 pop album, The Lead and How to Swing It, he hasn't left his mature devotees in the cold. This month, in fact, Jones is releasing a greatest-hits compilation, The Best of Tom Jones -- Millennium Collection (Polydor).

Tom Jones performs Saturday, February 5, at the Houston Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway, at 8 p. m. Tickets are $36.50 and $75.50. For more information, call (713)988-1020. (Craig D. Lindsey)

 
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