Kelly Joe Phelps
Kelly Joe Phelps first came to the attention of music fans beyond the Pacific Northwest with the release of his album Roll Away the Stone [Rykodisc] in 1997 (his first album, Lead Me On, released by Burnside Records in 1994, is an excellent piece of work that is just available on import). Roll Away the Stone evoked an immediate and overwhelming upbeat response from both music critics and fans who follow folk, blues, and the rootsier side of country and rock. Phelps’ lap slide guitar wizardry immediately caught the attention of guitar afficianados, and his ear-catching voice - a dusky, well-worn thing - has the sort of visceral appeal that stays with a listener.
Phelps, a resident of Vancouver, Washington, followed Roll Away The Stone with his second Rykodisc release, Shine Eyed Mister Zen, in 1999. The CMJ review of this CD noted: “Phelps plays with the tender prowess and soul-soothing magic of a man twice his age, surrounding the listener with intricate music, backwoods lyrical gloom and warmly evocative vocals.” Mr. Zen did a great deal to solidify Phelps’ reputation as a unique musician and songwriter. He’s building a repertoire that finds inspiration in country blues, traditional music, gospel, bluegrass, rock, and jazz. This multitude of voices comes together in Phelps’ music in an understated and wholly fluent fashion, giving him a sound that is both familiar and rarefied.
Phelps’ musical odyssey began in the farm country of western Washington in the midst of a very tuneful family. When the music bug got to him, he started behind the drums. As a teenager, an encounter with Jimmy Page’s guitar playing prompted Phelps to take up the instrument. After the usual romance with rock music, he entered his twentysomething years and became intrigued with jazz. “I was drawn to the improvisational thing jazz players were doing,” Phelps explained. Jazz has been a particularly crucial training ground during Phelps’ musical coming-of-age.
Fans who have not had the chance to catch him in concert may not be aware of the role improvisation plays in his music. If you listen to the tracks on his albums and then you go to hear him in concert, you’ll soon realize that the songs you heard on the CDs didn’t exactly happen the same way in concert. They never do.
Phelps invested a good deal of time in jazz, playing for about a decade in Washington and Oregon. Then he dropped out. “What happened was that I found myself wanting to play in an improvised manner, but a more folk kind of music,” Phelps continued. “I grew up listening to country music with my mom and dad, and I always liked certain aspects of that music. And, of course, I was always into guys like Leo Kottke and Chet Atkins.”
Phelps jazz years laid the groundwork for his return to the guitar and to folk music (folk in the broadest sense of the term, as he pointed out). He realized that what he had wanted to do all along was improvise in a folk/blues context, but it took jazz to teach him the spontaneity he lacked. What Phelps eventually learned was how to use his musical vocabulary to initiate, or hold up his end of, a musical dialogue.
Phelps’ affinity for country and folk music, overlaid by his years playing jazz, has given him a musical breadth that is manifest in his work to date and very much a reflection of the way in which he approaches writing and performing.
The eclecticism that is a hallmark of Phelps’ music was evident on his debut album and his first Rykodisc CD, and it caused a bit of scrambling among music critics. Blues writers seem to have been the first to pick up on Roll Away the Stone, and their vociferous praise led many fans to the erroneous conclusion that Phelps was a stone blues player. While it’s difficult to compare him to anyone else, living or dead, there is a spirit and a breadth to his music that resembles that if Huddie Ledbetter. Phelps has one foot firmly planted in folk and the other planted wherever.
“The country blues players have been both an inspiration and an example,” Phelps said, “but I don’t think of myself as being a blues player. I think when I first set the guitar on my lap and started playing slide, I toyed with the idea that I would play blues music. After a while, however, it just became more and more obvious that blues was just a set of sounds and emotions that I identified with and wanted to include in what I did.
When Phelps is sitting on stage, guitar in his lap, slide in his hand, he presents a bluesy sort of image. He spends a lot of time playing guitar in that style - like a Dobro player works his or her instrument. According to Phelps, the legendary bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell has something to do with his playing style. “When I started listening to Fred McDowell, and I was trying to figure out his slide guitar stuff, I initially tried playing the guitar bottleneck style. That was sort of working, sort of not. But there were a couple of things going on with that. For one thing, I’d been listening to Derek Bailey quite a bit, which had me wondering what else I could do with the guitar that I’m not doing with it yet, to get some other sounds out of it. That’s when I threw it in my lap and started using different things as slides and tuning the guitar in odd ways. I picked up a couple of lap steels to continue the process.
Phelps’ approach to singing was initially informed mainly by high anxiety. This was one thing that the decade of jazz had not prepared him for, and he was, at best, a reluctant vocalist. It was surprising to hear this from him, given the fact that critics have been quick to praise his vocal style. He has warmed to the task, however, in the last couple of years. “I’m intensely glad that I’m singing,” he admitted. “I just thoroughly enjoy it.... A lot of times I describe the singing thing as if it was the seventh string on the guitar. You know, sometimes at a gig I have to describe what I want to the sound engineer, because a lot of times they do the typical mix where the voice is way out front and the guitar is buried. But I tell them that my approach is to weave my vocals into the guitar ....”.
Phelps' records are largely attempts to capture on tape the sounds he’s making in his increasingly celebrated live shows, wherein spellbound audiences would watch him pick, slide and drum on the guitar he held flat in his lap while his soulful vocals wove smokily through both great old folk songs and his own evocative compositions. Not only do his albums, LEAD ME ON, ROLL AWAY THE STONE (Phelps' first release for Rykodisc), SHINE EYED MISTER ZEN and SKY LIKE A BROKEN CLOCK, succeed in capturing Phelps' live sound, they won his kinetic, organic folk music legions of new fans and reams of critical accolades.
Phelps also found himself in demand as a sideman, adding his slide touch to albums by Greg Brown, Tim O'Brien, Tony Furtado and others. Recent projects underscore Phelps' compatibility with many musical worlds: he performed with Bert Jansch in a documentary on the British folk icon, and was featured alongside Sonic Youth, Tom Waits, Philip Glass, and others on the soundtrack to the film Condo Painting; meanwhile, Phelps' tour itinerary took him to the roots mecca Merlefest and the experimental mecca Knitting Factory.
Shine on, mister zen.
WHAT THE PRESS SAYS ABOUT KELLY .......
Live review (Kelly Joe Phelps at Jazz Café, London, England) taken from Evening Standard (London), February 2000
REBIRTH OF THE BLUES
“There's more than one way to skin a guitar (not counting with your teeth, or behind your back), and one of the strangest and most beautiful was demonstrated to a captivated Jazz Café last night by a former jazz bass-player raised on Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Kelly Joe Phelps was nearly 30 when he took up blues guitar, inexplicably drawn to the ancient Delta-blues tradition. Nine years on, he can make a standard Gibson six-string folk model ring like a Dobro resonator. Only he knows how, but it involves laying his instrument flat on its back in his lap and articulating it with a bottleneck, much as a pedal-steel player would. His right hand tweaks the bass strings with thumb and forefinger while hammer-chording the others with fingers three, four and five. It's a complex skill, and one day Kelly Joe will reveal all to Guitar Player magazine, but what makes him special is his lazy feel for acoustic blues, that gently pulsating melange of one bitter voice and six sweet strings. "It's like making love, isn't it?" breathed a nearby female fan. "So intense."
New York Times, February 2000
FLYING FINGERS ON GUITAR
“Kelly Joe Phelps has a wise right hand. When playing his lap-steel acoustic guitar at the Knitting Factory, he would sometimes anchor that hand by the pinky and pick, his thumb and three other fingers whirling across the strings. On other songs, he would hold three fingers still and get a steadier but equally swift flow of notes from his index finger and thumb. Occasionally that right hand would run free across the guitar's body, strumming lightly up the fretboard and down to the bottom of the strings. All the while, Mr. Phelps's left hand was flying its own imaginative course, usually aboard a metal slide but sometimes lightly pressing notes into the fretboard or reaching to detune a string.
The relationship between left and right hand determines Mr. Phelps's style, just as the meeting of left and right brain defines his songs. The analytical side of this music links Delta blues with free jazz and jazz-folk, in compositions and arrangements as tied to the spacious melodicism of Joni Mitchell as to the well-grounded improvisations of blues masters like Mississippi Fred McDowell. The intuitive side contradicts all categories in performances that are never the same twice. Mr. Phelps may have growled and moaned like a postage-stamp bluesman in his performance last Wednesday, but his croon also invoked the light phrasing of Paul Simon; his playing may have echoed heroes like Bukka White, but it also rode on vapors of Bach and Mr. Phelps's fellow American experimentalist Bill Frisell. Mr. Phelps connects to the blues as poetry; his own lyrics, as in "River Rat Jimmy," the song that gave him the title to his latest album, "Shine Eyed Mister Zen," are highly metaphorical and as nonlinear as his playing. Performing the folk standard "Black Waterside," he focused on the fairy tale language, his airy playing conjuring a pocket of supernatural space. On gospel songs, he manipulated his fretboard to create eerie harmonics as he slipped from a mumble to a falsetto, as if to follow the soul beyond the physical realm....”
Washington Post , July 2001
KELLY JOE PHELPS AFFIRMS HIS STATUS AS A MASTER MUSICIAN AND STORYTELLER
“Anyone who has ever seen singer-songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps in concert knows he makes quite a first impression. Now, with the release of his CD "Sky Like a Broken Clock," he's made a lasting one. Onstage, Phelps plays lap-style acoustic guitar with a bar slide. The guitar strings are jacked up a little, like those on a Dobro, but the absence of a resonator allows Phelps to produce a tone that has more sparkle than twang. Sometimes he doesn't even sound like a slide player who uses open tunings. For example, when his right thumb is in motion, creating an alternating bass pattern beneath a bright melody, Phelps evokes the tuneful fingerstyle touch of Mississippi John Hurt and other seminal blues artists....”
The Sunday Times, July 2001
“If you have ever seen blues-folk troubadour Kelly Joe Phelps play live, you will know how mesmerising his lap-based guitar playing can be. Those mercurial fingers conjure the mystifying illusion of two or three sidemen..... “
Up from the Roots, Out on a Limb (taken from Artists of the Decade feature in Acoustic Guitar's Tenth Anniversary Collector's Edition issue (July 2000))
“EVERYWHERE KELLY JOE PHELPS HAS gone in the past six years, he's left behind a trail of guitarists with wide eyes, shaking heads, and jaws bruised from hitting the floor. He hasn't done this with hot licks or tricks, although he can fingerpick or whip around a slide guitar as well as anyone. Phelps does something far more rare: he goes deep into that zone where all master musicians go (he calls it becoming a "shine eyed mister zen") and unearths songs that grow and change with each performance. Along the way he takes alarming risks - reharmonizing, revamping the melody, making up whole songs on the spot, knocking his forehead against the mic if the moment requires a kickdrum sound - and delivers extravagant rewards......”
UNCUT magazine (March 2000) Concert Review, London, The Jazz Café
“KELLY Joe Phelps' slide guitar seemed to spring into independent life at the multiple climaxes of 1997's breakthrough LP, Roll Away The Stone, to ripple and snake into unknown territory for the country blues he allegedly played, to squeeze out sounds touching the searching jazz that ad once been his trade, to mutate through more layers than 12 strings should hold. And the songs - half traditional, half his, their pleas for God's mercy beyond the grave healed the spirit in ways disbelievers, in Bibles or blues, could feel ........... Somewhere, in some Surrey mansion, Eric Clapton lazily maintains what he plays is the blues. Phelps doesn't bother; he's better than that.....“
HOT PRESS magazine, February 2000
ACROSS THE BORDERLINE
KELLY JOE PHELPS may be viewed by some as a bluesman, but the multi-instrumentalist isn't going to be confined by such narrow boundaries. By SIOBHAN LONG.
MUSIC THAT'S not of this world is a scarce commodity these days. Amid times of plenty there are souls starving for something real, something that cuts right to the bone. Kelly Joe Phelps has sated many an appetite with his last two CDs, but it's his live shows that really salve the spirits.
“Phelps received a rapturous reception at his recent Whelan's gig, so much so that he was cajoled to return for three encores. Billed as a blues player, he tore strips off our preconceptions by gathering around a sound that was part blues, part folk, but wholly of his own conjuring. Listening to his razor-sharp ramblings on 'River Rat Jimmy' and his wry re-working of 'Wandering Away', even a blind man could see that Kelly Joe had gotten beneath the skin of the music and made it all his own .....”
Roll away the Stone (album Roll away the stone )
House Carpenter (album Shine Eyed Mister Zen )
River Rat Jimmy (album Shine Eyed Mister Zen )
Go there (album Roll away the stone )
Capman Bootman (album Shine Eyed Mister Zen )
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