Often what motivates me to talk to you on this Blog about a particular artist is the wish to share the emotion I felt at my first encounter with his universe. Sometimes the shock has been extreme and eletric, at other times the meeting was rather more spiritual and intoxicating. When I went to my first Kelly Joe Phelps gig in my area in the late Nineties, it was definitely the latter, a kind of a cloud nine experience. Phelps, armed with only his guitar and voice, succeeded in making me have a remarkable and magical experience. After more than an hour listening to his music, in the middle of a near-church-like audience, a feeling of deep quiet and well-being had invaded me. It has to be said that on that evening, the grace and the musical subtlety came close to the sublime and the presentation was totally natural and had a disconcerting solemnity.
Kelly Joe first came to me in 1994 with his first wonderful album: Lead Me On, worthy of the new wave Revival Folk Blues which was to come in the middle of the Nineties with Keb Mo, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Guy Davis, Eric Bibb and others. But our guitar player, based in Portland, showed his sharp expermental spirit from the start, taking apart the famous 12 bars and classical constructions: verse /refrain/chorus in his Blues compositions and taking the listener into waves of Folk, but with new and limitless runs that could be attributed to the heritage of his earlier years in the world of Free Jazz. So he forged a very personal and characeristic style which has not stopped evolving over the years, first by adding other instruments to his single guitar and culminating in 2009
with the release of Western Bell, which presented a totally instrumental creation, not just complex but filled with acoustic Free Jazz Folk characteristics, and all slightly bewildering to his earliest fans.
After a pleasant interlude, working duo shows with the Californian singer-songwriter Corinne West and the release of their Magnetic Skyline CD in 2010, KJP has returned, with his former accomplice, Steve Dawson taking responsibility for the production with this Brother Sinner And The Whale, recorded over three days in Vancouver, Canada. At the age of nearly 53, our man decided to go back to the source and to his values, both musically and spiritually. We find him, solo in the studio, doing 6 songs on his National guitar with metallic resonator and 6 others on his Martin 35 Johnny Cash black model. 11 songs and a repeat, all with biblical contents inspired by the book of Jonah, and just like Lurrie Bell (reviewed here) Phelps is back with a Gospel release, imbued with echos of Blues and Folk.
A few notes on the Dobro, melodic, stinging and hit with an authority often attributed to Son House all in one, Kelly Joe starts with ‘Talkin’ to Jehova’ to open the door for us onto this creations, not only dedicated to his religious beliefs but also as a reflection on his life. The voice is still captivating and moving, his technical skills on Slide Guitar, played flat on his knees, are always impressive. A first grand Blues/Gospel moment takes us to the heart of the Delta of the Southern Mississippi. With : Goodbye To Sorrow and his finger pickin’ technique on the acoustic, which originally forged our man’s reputation, we tend to lean towards Rev. Gary Davis, so dear to Jorma Kaukonen and so many others. With a beautiful vibrant melody and a stress-free voice Mr. Phelps tells us how he has shaken off his pains and his sorrows.
In this way he switches between aspects of folk: accompanied on his acoustic guitar to give us: Pilgrim’s Reach, Hard Time They Never Go Away and Crosby Stills & Nash off-shoots; Sometimes A Drifter as beautiful as anything by James Taylor, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehova which could have been written by Mississippi John Hurt, or The Holy Spirit Flood and his finger picking virtuosity which remind us of when he started, and then he switches to religious Blues with flamboyant playing on the Dobro in the penetrating Hope In The Lord To Provide, Down The Praying Ground and his seductive vocal melodies. The depth of Gospel and Spirituals reaches its peak with the repeat of the traditional (which was already on Lead Me On, but in a different version) I’ve Been Converted, where the intensity reminds us of Blind Willie Johnson, a grand moment.
Do not think that Kelly Joe Phelps has come to simply try and convert you to his cause. Whether you believe or not, the music should be interpreted with the utmost conviction and a religious belief certainly perpetuates a strong one there. Furthermore, several of the song lyrics can be totally removed from their religious context: Sometimes A Drifter or Hard Time They Never Gow Away; he also gives us 2 instrumentals on Dobro, the fantastic Brother Pilgrim which closes with imperial mastery. This puts him beyond any kind of unwelcome preaching and allows him to stay within the ingenuous framework of a completely artistic collection of work. There are ample examples of Blues men going, without prejudice, from Blues to Gospel such as the giant Son House and as the music comes from deep within them, it can only touch you, move you and transport you. Kelly Joe Phelps converted me to his music a long time ago and today he demonstrates that he still is a great and genuine artist, full of subtlety and refinement. A rare find!