Friends and fellow musicians Phil Cook and Charlie Parr are taking a road trip.
Cook, a Chippewa Falls native who now lives in Durham, N.C., and Parr, of Duluth, Minn., are embarking on a tour that includes shows Monday and Tuesday night in Pablo Center at the Confluence’s Jamf Theatre.
In separate phone interviews, the two singer/multi-instrumentalists talked about their friendship and musical collaborations.
Cook said he credits Parr, in part, for his picking up the guitar in the first place. He first saw the folk-blues musician in concert more than 20 years ago at the Eau Claire Unitarian Congregation. At that time Cook, whose music encompasses styles such as rock, blues and soul, was a keyboard player and singer.
“I didn’t even play guitar yet,” Cook said. “I walked away from that concert with a lot of inspiration and connection just to be another fellow Upper Midwestern person who grew up in an isolated, wintry place.”
By watching Parr in action, Cook continued, he realized he had been “bitten by a bug — the blues bug.”
They crossed paths over the next 10 years and became friends. Parr toured with Megafaun, the band that featured Cook, his brother Brad Cook and Joe Westerlund of Eau Claire. Furthermore, Phil Cook produced Parr’s 2015 album, “Stumpjumper” (Red House Records).
“He traveled down to North Carolina,” Cook said. “I assembled the band, and we made the record in a handful of days. It was a very wonderful and inspiring project, and I’m very proud to have been a part of that project.”
The tour of the Midwest and Southeast will build on their personal and professional relationship, Cook suggested.
“We’re just linking it all up, man,” he said.
Parr offered that he’s also looking forward to the venture.
“Getting to play some live shows with him means quite a bit to me,” he said.
Set lists unneeded
The concerts will consist of solo segments by both Cook and Parr, and they also will perform together.
As for the specific selections, they’re yet to be finalized.
“Charlie and I share a pretty common method of playing concerts and writing set lists, and that is that we don’t,” Cook said. “I’m definitely going to sing, and some stuff will be instrumental, and I don’t know what that is yet, and every night will be different. And I’m really excited to see what happens.”
Parr elaborated on why he performs without a written tally of tunes.
“I’ve never bothered with them,” he said. “You get one and, what I do, anyway, is I immediately begin to second-guess my choices. … The thing is there’s too many variables to count — audience energy and venue, a lot of stuff that’s happening. So what I’ve always counted on is just getting up and playing what I want to play and then the next thing just kind of occurs to me.”
Parr sounded comfortable with the fact that he and Cook will figure out what they’re doing when the get to the theater.
“In the larger scheme of things it’s folk music after all,” he added with a laugh. “I don’t think it benefits too much from over planning. I think if it were a jazz band or a big rock band … I think it benefits from a little bit of spontaneity.”
The Eau Claire audiences are likely to hear new work from both artists.
Cook recently released the album “As Far As I Can See: Instrumental Recordings 2009-2019.”
In a heartfelt essay about the recording that appears on his website (philcookmusic.com), Cook writes about how this “collection of snapshots” came about when he could carve out some time at moments in his life and “let the instrument say what it wants to say.”
As Cook explained, “I grew up as a piano player in Chippewa Falls and so I sang, did background vocals and did that kind of stuff. ... But my relationship with music really stems from instrumental music.”
Specifically, Cook’s musical education included learning classical music and then learning blues and soul and gospel music by ear through playing albums in his parents’ house.
“That’s been really incredible to just embrace that part of my identity and kind of nurture it a little bit as I’ve gotten a lot more life experience, gotten a lot more time to develop, a lot more time to develop as a musician over the years,” he said.
Parr expects to feature material from a recording set for release later this summer. Self-titled, the album features all the musicians who performed on “Dog,” his 2017 album on Red House Records. But Parr said his solo performances make up more than 75 percent of it and it features familiar and new songs.
“I don’t know how to say this without sounding morbid, but it feels kind of like a wrapping up record,” he said. “There are older songs on it that I just felt I like wanted to have another try at recording a version of it. Recording is hard because songs are never really done. They’re always works in progress so you’re recording a version of it but it’s just how that song happened to sound on that particular day. It doesn’t really mean anything for the ages.”
The newer songs also lent themselves to the solo, lo-fi format.
“So it very much feels like tying some loose ends,” he said.
Feeling at home
When it comes to touring, Cook has been generous with his home region. He has often showcased his talents at Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival. Notably, he unveiled songs from his then-new “Southland Mission” album at the festival’s 2015 debut. He has said from the stage at other shows how much the warm reception meant to him.
Cook also has appeared in the region as a member of the Hiss Golden Messenger band and made his Pablo Center debut last October. Needless to say Cook holds the Chippewa Valley in high regard.
“Of course,” he said. “Absolutely. I think that returning to the place that you grew up is a really sacred act that you can do as somebody who travels and somebody who has left the place they grew up.”
He went on to explain how deeply he connects with his roots in the region.
“I biologically feel the shift in the terrain once I get north of Chicago past the state line … see Highway 12-18 to Madison and north and beyond and eventually get up to all the hills in Eleva, and my shoulders drop,” he said. “My body just knows I’m home.”
Parr said he also has high regard for the Chippewa Valley.
“I love playing Eau Claire,” he said. He recalled gracing the stage at the Unitarian Congregation — “that little church downtown” — as well as frequent stops at The Mousetrap and, before it closed, The House of Rock. He also relishes playing in Owen Park for the Chippewa Valley Blues Society’s Tuesday Night Blues series, where he has been a regular over the years.
He also greatly enjoys Blue Ox Music Festival, the bluegrass-roots-Americana event in the town of Union outside of Eau Claire. Parr will be taking the stage Saturday, June 15, at the fifth annual event.
“It’s an amazing festival,” he said. “Every year it gets better and better. I’m always pretty honored they choose to keep on including me, even though I don’t actually play any bluegrass at all; never have.”
After laughing gently, he added, “And so it’s nice that they keep on asking me back.”
The key of joy
Cook is known for an especially exuberant stage presence. He said that sense of joy has always been there but he gained a deeper understanding of it while working on “I’ll Find a Way,” the 2013 album by the Blind Boys of Alabama.
The album was recorded at Justin Vernon’s April Base studio in the Chippewa Valley. Vernon, who leads Bon Iver, was Phil Cook’s band mate in DeYarmond Edison. Vernon asked Cook to be musical director for the project.
Describing the experience as “profound,” Cook talked about being inspired by the group and their life story as well as their encouragement for him, which confirmed he was pursuing the right path.
“That was where all of my experience kind of just became, in just one week where I realized that the music that I love and the music that I’m going to create and the joy that I have learning that music is the joy I need to share with other people,” he said.
Asked to elaborate on the joy that music provides for him, Parr acknowledged it’s not easy to explain.
“Talking about music in that way is a challenge because music for me is religious in nature or sacred,” he said. “And the feeling I get from being able to play — and not performing even, just to play in my kitchen — is indescribable.”
First picking up the guitar when he was 8 years old, Parr said he has touched at least one of the instruments every day since — except when he broke his shoulder last summer.
Music has been an especially potent source of comfort in a longtime battle, Parr said.
“I credit music for saving my life on a couple of occasions,” he said. “Clinical depression has driven me at some points to consider suicide, and music has been the thing to bring me back from that brink.”
Cook said what makes returning to Pablo Center even more special is that he grew up — and played in school jazz ensemble — with Jason Jon Anderson, the center’s executive director.
“It’s cool when you see people you grew up with find their thing,” he said. “I found my thing, Jason’s found his thing, and he’s damn good at it.”
In short Cook and Parr will feel welcome in Eau Claire for individual and shared reasons.