The Record (Ontario)
You don't normally associate experimentation with acoustic blues, but Kelly Joe Phelps is not your run-of-the-mill bluesman.
He started playing guitar as a 12-year-old growing up in Sumner, a working class and farming area in Washington state.
Phelps played free-form jazz before he traded in his bass guitar for a Gibson flat-top and turned to acoustic blues.
Influenced by such delta bluesmen as Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James and Robert Pete Williams, he played slide guitar on his lap, Dobro fashion.
With a voice as parched as a dusty Mississippi crossroads, he sang delta blues and country gospel like an old black man in the Dust Bowl '30s who learned the blues while picking cotton under the hot, southern sun.
And to think he was a 30-something, white bluesman based in Portland, Ore.
Phelps's recording career, reflected in his live performances, has been a journey of growth and change.
His first three recordings (Lead Me On, Roll Away the Stone and Shine Eyed Mister Zen) were solo albums of original songs -- he began writing in 1990 after the birth of his daughter -- and covers of vintage acoustic blues.
His fourth album, Sky Like a Broken Clock, consisted solely of original compositions, backed by bass and drums.
Blues fans who had been with Phelps since the release of Lead Me On in 1994 readily voiced their displeasure when he lifted the guitar off his lap and placed it under his arm and began playing conventional, fingerstyle acoustic -- albeit with exceptional artistry.
He expanded his musical backdrop on his fifth album Slingshot Professionals, with guest musicians Bill Frisell and Vancouver's Steve Dawson (guitar), Jesse Zubot (fiddle and mandolin) and Chris Gestrin (keyboards), among others.
Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind featured a selection of nine solo concert tracks.
Dawson, Zubot and Gestrin returned on Tunesmith Retrofit, which acted as a bridge between his early solo albums and the band setting of Slingshot Professionals.
Released a couple of weeks ago, Phelps's eighth full-length album, the solo instrumental Western Bell, is his most experimental to date. It's released on Dawson's Black Hen Music label.
Catching his breath at home after a whirlwind European tour, Phelps agrees Western Bell is a return of sorts to his free-form jazz days.
"I tried to lose as many musical inhibitions as possible and let the music dictate what was going to happen," he explains.
The album is uncompromising and it places serious demands on listeners.
It's an album the 49-year-old artist insists he had to record for artistic reasons, rather than to satisfy career objectives.
"It's not about selling records, but keeping alive creatively and musically," he asserts.
"I wanted to find how able I was to let the music take over. I wanted to experience the raw joy music potentially has to offer."
Phelps is well aware of the risks involved in releasing such an album.
"I don't want to come off sounding bigger than I am, but constant exploration has kept me wanting to play guitar. It's important to grow as a musician, otherwise the guitar becomes a shovel."
Although a couple of the album's nine tracks are set compositions, much of the material is improvisation on six- and 12-string guitars, as well as lap-slide guitar.
Waterloo Region's burgeoning number of blues fans will get a taste of Western Bell when Phelps performs in concert Wednesday, March 11 at the Princess Cinema. However, much of the concert will feature material from previous albums.
Although this is his first visit to Waterloo, Phelps is no stranger to this part of the world.
He first performed in Kitchener at the former Mrs. Robinson's in 1996. He appeared at Guelph's Hillside Festival at the summer music festival's 25th anniversary in 2008, in addition to 2005 and 2000. Dawson and Zubot backed him in concert in Guelph in 2003.
Phelps says he enjoys touring Canada because "audiences embrace what I've been trying to do over the years."
He also is grateful for the musical relationship he has established with Dawson and Zubot. While all three musicians live on the West Coast, they actually met at a festival in Perth, Ont.
"We hit it off as people first. Shortly after they asked me to play on a couple of tracks on their Chicken Scratch album and then I invited them to play on a couple of my albums. Our musical relationship grew in an organic way."