The Joyful Noise of Paul Phillips’s Bottle Band

By Jeffrey Felshman

We heard about the Saint Luke’s Bottle Band from a friend of a friend of the band. We hadn’t seen them on Wild Chicago or in either of their appearances on Letterman, so we didn’t know what to expect. They’re a “blast,” our friend assured us, “a hoot.” Yes, we thought, that describes blowing on bottles. But what do they do? Wait until you see them, she told us.

As it turns out, this is the way the band usually gathers its audience. A word-of-mouth enterprise, it doesn’t advertise. The Saint Luke’s Bottle Band is a project of the congregation at Saint Luke’s Lutheran Church in Park Ridge, a sort of wicked auxiliary to the choir. Though the band has performed around the country, home base is the church gymnasium, which seats 300. Our tickets are $12, yet the gym is filled. We take the last three seats.

Onstage 21 people sit behind tables on three ascending tiers. Each has a bottle instrument of some sort in front of him or her. Most of the 21 sit gripping the sides of five brown beer bottles, which are glued together to look like a panpipe. The bottles are partially filled with what appears to be water. Various other types of bottles are lined up in front of other players. We recognize a 2.2-liter jug of J&B Scotch.

All together, the band is an impressive sight. Band, hell, we think–it’s an orchestra. There’s a man in a tux with a feather boa wrapped around his neck. A woman sitting next to him who looks to be in her 70s is wearing a tinsel headdress, giving her the aspect of a slightly daft fairy godmother. As the band launches into its opening number (“Strike Up the Band,” naturally), she leans forward grimly, grips her bottles with both hands, and blows.

The bandleader conducts from a position on the floor in front of the stage. Paul Phillips founded the bottle band in 1979 and is its conductor, arranger, producer, emcee, and possibly chief bottle washer. Between numbers he explains some of the logistics behind what we see onstage. “Bottles wear out,” he says. “In fact, over 50 percent of our rehearsal time is spent in ‘preparing our instruments,'” presumably by guzzling their contents. Then, addressing an unspoken question–what’s the difference between a bottle band and a jug band?–he says, “We do use jugs.” Wincing like a man with a sinus headache, he adds, “However, as we are in a church, we like to stay away from that term.”

We are certainly in a church. A Lutheran church in rock-ribbed Republican Park Ridge. A place, we have presumed, of “broad lawns and narrow minds.” Hillary Rodham Clinton’s hometown, or home village. Moreover, the congregation of Saint Luke’s is mainly of German or Swedish extraction–not, we assume, a promising mix for an act in search of laughs.

Introducing the next number, Phillips informs us he went to high school with Hillary. He’s angling for an invitation to the White House, he says, perhaps on the last night of the Clinton presidency, when the bottle band’s appearance there could do no further damage. He brings out the featured soloist, “Betty Sulu Fleming.” A tall, broad-shouldered, dour woman of indeterminate age carrying a cardboard Hillary under a careless arm, she plants herself near center stage, sticks her face through a hole in the cutout, and begins to play “Hail to the Chief” on kazoo. Twenty-one mouths blow behind her. There isn’t a person in the gym not laughing.

In 21 years Phillips has had only one complaint from the church. “We make a lot of jokes about drinking in the show, and someone from the congregation called to complain. One of her relatives had had a drinking problem and she was sensitive to the issue, so she wanted to know if we’d try to use different bottles, like Coke bottles, or salad dressing bottles. She offered to donate some Coke bottles, or salad dressing bottles, if we would just stop using beer bottles.” He reassured her that the band wasn’t promoting irresponsible drinking. “I told her that the people in the group don’t really drink that much–it’s a character we assume.”

Phillips, however, is more than passing familiar with the bottom of a bottle. After years of trial and error, he’s come to use four different bottle types. While a note in the program reads “The official bottle of the Saint Luke’s Bottle Band is a Leinenkugel,” Phillips says, “I’ve found that the green imported bottles work best for plucking.” Plucking is the act of sticking a finger in the mouth of the bottle and pulling it out, which creates a popping sound. “European beer bottles have a smaller bore than American beer bottles,” he continues, “so the finger can build up better friction.”

Besides blowing Leinenkugels and fingering imports, band members blow and hit some larger bottles. Sangria bottles are blown for a bass sound. Champagne bottles and J&B jugs are hit like xylophones. “Champagne bottles are good to hit, because they’re sturdy,” Phillips says. Shipbuilders have always said the same. Phillips has made a fairly deep study of bottles, their sizes, uses, sounds. “I’ve noticed things I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t leading a bottle band. For example, a couple of years ago I noticed that Beck’s had changed the height of their bottles. Just slightly.”

Though 21 people playing bottle is quite a spectacle (five others at various times play violin, clarinet, trombone, banjo, oboe, cymbals, castanets, timpani, kazoo, bell, and flash camera), Phillips is the star of the show. He doesn’t run the auditions, but that’s only because there are no auditions. Besides being in the congregation of Saint Luke’s, there are three requirements to join the band, he says. “You have to be able to blow on a bottle. You’ve got to be able to move your head. And you have to be able to read numbers.” This is because Phillips uses numbers instead of notes on the band’s song sheets. “We have a banker, a lawyer, a nurse, a couple of engineers–all kinds of people in the band.” All have the ability to put their lips together and blow.

Phillips also writes new lyrics to old songs. In “Mrs. Butterworth,” for example, one of the women in the band dresses as the syrup-bottle lady and sings along to the tune of “I’m Called Little Buttercup.” Mrs. Butterworth is then joined onstage by the Blue Nun, singing that old standard “The Blue Nun Blues.” Part of the reason this stuff works is Phillips’s patter. A deadpan style makes it difficult to tell whether he’s joking or telling the truth. Even his bio in the program is both more and less than it seems. While the first sentence says that the band was founded in 1979 by Phillips–and that is true–the next sentence claims that he is: (a) “a graduate of the Spike Jones School of Music,” (b) “currently a faculty member at the Ratcliff Conservatory of Unusual Sounds,” and (c) a doctor.

Phillips is “probably 51” and is certainly a self-taught conductor and arranger of music for the bottle. He actually did go to school with Hillary Clinton, and he did contact the White House about playing there. The band has played the Letterman show twice, once in 1996 and again on New Year’s Eve 1998 (“Paul Shaffer got a big hoot out of it,” Phillips says). He graduated from the Lutheran School of Theology in Hyde Park in 1998, but he isn’t a minister (“It was not real clear that I wanted to be a minister,” he says). He also was in the Second City Workshop (back in ’82 and ’83) and later in ImprovOlympic, but he isn’t a comedian. Not a professional comedian, anyway. “I say a lot of things in the show that aren’t true, but people take them as true.”

On the night we saw them perform, Phillips called the audience’s attention to the bottle band’s Web site, which he gave as We thought he might just be blowing smoke, but we tried it out–and brought up a porn site. Phillips had already heard from a couple of other people taken in by the joke that this was the case. But he wasn’t especially perturbed. “Yes, I’ll have to change that in the act.”

No one was upset. Both the band and its audience are more sophisticated than that. “I know a lot of people, when they first hear about the band, think it might be something corny and crude or amateurish because it’s in a church and it’s a bottle band. But it works on many levels. It appeals to sophisticated musical people, and kids love it ’cause it’s so innocently silly. It has multiple layers of meaning. It’s very gratifying that it appeals to such a broad range of people.”

At intermission, while less ambitious members of the audience munch on snacks served up by the friendly Youth of Saint Luke’s, we take turns sticking a finger in the top of a bottle, then pulling it out. One lucky concertgoer will win the opportunity to play lead plucker after intermission on “Pop Goes the Weasel”–but only one who can use a well-muscled finger to actually make a plucking sound.

The band opens the second half with a rousing rendition of “Halsa dem Darhemma,” which translates roughly as “Say Hello to Those at Home.” Four band members dressed in blue and yellow form a chorus line to create a flapping Swedish flag. Then the band flies through several production numbers before the big drawing for the plucker. And the winner is…someone else.

A ten-year-old boy solemnly takes his place on the floor in front of the stage, next to Phillips. Even when Phillips mentions that lessons in the various arts of bottle music are available “for the price of a six-pack,” the boy doesn’t crack a smile. Sure, it’s easy to extract a pluck from a bottle when nobody’s watching, but now that he’s standing before 300 people, can he pull it off?

Phillips hunches his shoulders, raises his baton, and the band launches into the first stanza of “Pop Goes the Weasel,” sounding like an overwound music box. Silently we sing along: “All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel, the monkey thought ’twas all in fun”–Phillips points his baton at the boy–“pop!” goes the bottle. The boy smiles, and the band blows on.

The Saint Luke’s Bottle Band will perform in a benefit for the Oak Park-River Forest Children’s Chorus on Sunday, October 29, at 7 PM in the auditorium of Trinity High School, 7574 Division in River Forest. Ticket prices are $20 for adults, $10 for children 18 and under. Call 708-383-1971. They’ll also appear on Wild Chicago’s 12th anniversary show on WTTW, airing November 9. Call 847-825-6659, ext. 15, to get on the band’s mailing list.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.