The Donau Kurier (Germany)
Ingolstadt – Finally it’s time. In two ways. Firstly, the concert season 2012/2013 in the ‘Neue Welt’ starts that evening. And secondly, after having tried so often but unsuccessfully over the last 13 years, promoter Walter Haber has finally succeeded in booking Kelly Joe Phelps from Washington, DC. How big a feat that is can be deducted from the fact that he is only playing two shows in Germany, one in Köln and the other one right here in Ingolstadt. After the show it is more than obvious that it has been well worth all the trouble.
Phelps is a singer/songwriter leaning towards Blues and Folk. He is a guitar virtuoso who, on a whim, will release an instrumental album with pure guitar music; he is a gifted poet and lyricist and ultimately, as a composer, the creator of acoustic master pieces. At first glance his aim is not to be an entertainer looking for public appeal but maybe afterall he is just that, because he withdraws as a person in order to put the music center stage. Which is exactly where it has to be.
Tonight, Phelps puts out a lot from his latest CD ‘Brother Sinner & The Whale’ which, thematically, could be regarded as a gospel album. But that would be too narrow because the lyrics of songs like ‘Talking to Jehova’, ‘Hope in the Lord to Provide’ and ‘Pilgrim’s Reach’ deal with spirituality but also question, comment and examine. Musically, Phelps avoids everything that could closely resemble the ‘sugar-sweet hymns’ so are often heard in that genre. No, his songs flow beatifully, groove without a band, and through only the sounds of an acoustic guitar and the Dobro, are real gems. Phelps, with his slightly rough but nevertheless ‘clear’ voice, changes, caresses and enhances the melodies and so turns them back into Gospel songs again. In between he honors the old Masters of the Blues, like Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson, whose ‘Hellhound on my Trail’ is masterly covered; or he uses some instrumental-rags from his idols Chet Atkins, Merle Travis and Leo Kottke. But whatever he does, and despite the acoustic limitations, he is immensely present; the audience listens attentively, and if ever a dictum is true, that ‘in stillness lies power’, it’s true for Kelly joe Phelps. Rarely has anyone in the Neue Welt been so intensely present, despite the modest visual, acoustic show props.