At the Cantab Lounge recently, Phil Rosenthal found himself singing into a gale-force head wind of loud conversation. It wasn’t unfriendly. Just oblivious. No cover, no minimum, hockey and soccer on the multiple TVs. But there was a crowd of 30 or so attentive listeners on folding chairs in front of the stage as Phil, his son Daniel, and their band sailed on into the clamor. “I’ll fly away,” sang Phil in his relaxed deep baritone. “When I die/ Hallelujah by and by/ I’ll fly away.” The father-son team plays a double bill with Daniel’s jazz quintet at the Lily Pad on July 7.
At a cafe in Jamaica Plain, Phil laughs when I mention the Cantab’s loud factor the day after that show. Had Phil ever sung in noisy bars with the Seldom Scene, the esteemed bluegrass band he was a part of in the ’70s and ’80s? “No, they didn’t play any bars by the time I joined the band.” In fact, Phil remembers the night he first played with them, in 1977, replacing lead singer John Starling. It was the Scene’s regular Thursday night at bluegrass mecca the Birchmere, in Alexandria, Va. Everyone wanted to check out the new guy. “You could have heard a pin drop,” Phil says. But after Phil sang his original tune “Muddy Water,” about a disastrous flood on the Shenandoah, the crowd roared. He was in. (The song, meanwhile, has since been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and goth god Nick Cave.)