I will never not be emotionally compromised when I see Big Phony. There’s such a deep ache that carves a trench through his music. So open with his battle scars and how he got them, it doesn’t take much to translate that same veritas to his stage performance.
So this is the thing about Bobby. There’s no way to be unaffected. His presence as an artist sits in a space where you’re in need of release but aren’t sure how to get it. Bobby allows you room to do so while still giving himself permission to express some very hard, very real truths of his own.
He does mask a lot of pain with humor (as the best performers, and indeed comedians, do). But there’s no mistaking the honesty and depth of both his musicianship and his emotions.
One doesn’t necessarily needed to know him personally to know there’s a stone of sadness that weighs down his stage show. I count myself incredibly blessed to know him, but he doesn’t hide too much from his audience. So in a sense he gives everyone a chance to know at the very least a kernel of his vulnerabilities. His raw and beautiful humanity.
So overwhelmed by the power of watching him once again in the ornate beauty of Central Presbyterian, I had to put the camera down after a song and a half. His connection with his past, his complicated relationship with faith, and the ultimate declaration of how good God actually has been to him in his life culminated in a performance that while stagnant as far as the audience reaction (those in attendance who weren’t familiar with his quirky performance style didn’t really know how to correlate his sense of humor with the actual content of his music) was so heavy-laden with emotion I was almost reduced to tears.
His is a heady liquor. It strikes hard and leaves you floating in an emotion for all 40 minutes of his solo stage.
But watching at the Flatstock Stage allows me to see Bobby without the haze of that overwhelming moment. What I see here is a man devoid of any real pretense. Yeah, Big Phony, I get it. However, beneath the veneer of needing some real distance between the audience and himself (jokes, guitar, microphone) he really is just a man sitting in a chair with his guitar. The power of both the deception and the heart-aching reality is not lost on me.
The softness in his voice belies someone who’s had it rugged in his life. Someone who’s had to see himself through the battles we wage as humans. That’s exactly what this performance, as with every performance I’ve seen, is all about: unflinching humanity. Bobby’s humility is almost legendary now (telling people it’s okay for them to leave before calling them an asshole for their trouble, willingly giving away his merch and his music for free–though this year he’s added that you can trade him for the stuff… with cash). And behind that self-deprecating humor is more self-deprecation.
However, over the years he’s become very confident. It’s all wrapped in someone aware of himself and those around him. Another aspect of his stage show that bleeds over from real life.
In a nutshell (because I could go on for 15 pages about this man), Big Phony is both the riddle and the answer. He’s an enigma complex enough to keep you wondering about his demons, but simple enough to let you in on the joke.
No matter how many times I see him, I’m always left feeling… I don’t even know the words to put to it. Raw? Overwhelmed? None of these fit, don’t quite touch the exact thing that runs through me. I will say this. After leaving one of Big Phony’s performances, there’s no way you’re emotionally in the same place as you were before walking in.