Phil Settle should let his guitar do the singing for him.
Phil Settle should let his guitar do the singing for him.

Local Music Reviewed

Phil Settle & Friends

Santa Monica Pier

Sand Canyon Records

Houston nightclub veterans of the '70s and '80s might remember Settle as a local singer and picker and leader of bands such as Bittersweet, Sweetrush and Bounce. During the past decade, though, the graduate of North Texas State University and former Houstonian relocated to L.A., where he has continued to pursue his rock and roll career while scoring movies and TV shows. His work has appeared on promos for shows such as Frasier, Suddenly Susan and The Tonight Show, and he even had a stint as the bandleader for The Chuck Woolery Show -- and admits it in his résumé!

But you won't find Settle's version of "Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs" on this CD, a live recording of ten lengthy tracks from a 1998 outdoor show given on the record's namesake pier. Combining both his originals and some choice covers, Settle's combo of Texified jazz, funk and R&B makes for pleasant summer listening, evocative of a Saturday at the beach with a cooler of tall cold ones and some party buddies for company.

Things kick off with "Yo Mama," a head-boppin' instrumental of greasy guitar licks and '70s-style organ that might make, well, a great theme for a TV show. The tune segues into a cover of Bill Wither's classic "Use Me," which manages a fresh look at an overplayed number. Settle makes effective use of his instrument's pedals, and the band plays lustily on an extended jam.

In fact, the extended jams are representative of Santa Monica Pier's greatest strength, which runs through many songs on the CD. This is not a collection of note-perfect and thoroughly planned out 12-minute guitar solos or revolving backup band instrumentals, which many artists mistake for improvisation on stage. Rather, Settle and his tight group (including Alec Milstein on bass) let the groove take them were it may. Wherever the band goes, it always seems to land back on a recognizable melody. This technique made the '70s live albums of such acts as Dave Mason, Little Feat and Chicago stand out from their studio work. Settle and friends pursue their jam muse again on the funky originals "She Can Do No Wrong" and "Charlene." The former includes a fantastic popping solo by Milstein and nice rolls by drummer Herman Matthews. The band also cooks on Settle's eminently danceable "Till You Get It Right" and a take on the Duke/ Peacock blues standard "Further On Up (Down) the Road."

What sometimes hurts Settle are his limitations as a singer. His vocal reediness detracts from any power he might conjure up. He makes great joy seem a bit flat on Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA." Also, two of his attempts to take on social and ecological problems (e.g., "Turn of the Century" and "What'll We Tell the Children?") are maudlin at best and bad high school poetry at worst. When they're played you can just sense that the band is antsy to rip it up on the next number.

There are plenty of worse ways to spend an afternoon than having Phil Settle & Friends over for a spin. Santa Monica Pier offers a simple but solid good time and doesn't pretend otherwise. And you don't even have to travel to California to enjoy it.


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