Phil Vassar sings like an all-American

Saturday, September 13, 2003

Phil Vassar's songs are vignettes about growing up in America, playing first base with a second-hand glove, warm summer nights, pushed-back car seats, turning 30. He sings and plays them with an all-American exuberance impossible to dislike.

Handsome, blond and athletic, Vassar roams the stage like a football player looking for somebody to tackle or at least dance with. His voice and music owe more to rock than to country, but he fits right into the current state of country music.

Vassar performed before an audience of approximately 1,200 Friday night at the SEMO District Fair. The final night of grandstand entertainment will be presented at 8 p.m. today when John Anderson, David Ball and Shenandoah entertain in Operation Redneck.

Besides singing his own songs, Vassar stands out in the crowd of country entertainers in another way. He doesn't play a guitar. Piano is his instrument, one he plays with skill. He spent 13 years in Nashville as a songwriter and nightclub entertainer before somebody noticed him.

Many of the songs he sang Friday night are more associated with other artists. Jo Dee Messina had hits with Vassar's "I'm Alright" and "Bye Bye." Tim McGraw grabbed his "My Next Thirty Years."

But Vassar sang those songs as well or better than they did. Perhaps nobody can sing a song like the person who wrote it.

Backed by a five-piece band that occasionally added the sounds of accordion and mandolin, Vassar sometimes strode the stage, sometimes played a red baby grand piano, and occasionally jumped atop the piano to sing.

When the band left the stage for a break, he sang an engaging rendition of Billy Joel's "The Piano Man," a salute to his own days as entertainer rather than star. Maybe you can top the original.

One highlight of Vassar's set was the rolling rocker "Joe and Rosalita," a tune about a steamy couple known as "the legends of love." Another was the anthemic "American Child," in which he sang of counting his blessings for being an American child. The crowd roared when one of the Navy seamen who presented the colors before the show came on stage during the song.

Some of the set was disposable, as when the electric guitarist sang AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" or when the fiddle player gave the Eagles' "Life in the Fast Lane" a try. But Vassar himself is a skilled songwriter and entertainer.

He's no Johnny Cash, whose passing Friday ends an era in country music. But Vassar knows how to have a good time and knows enough to put the top down and invite the audience along for the ride.

sblackwell@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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