Dagblad van het Noorden
Spijkerboor. The American Kelly Joe Phelps likes to do it a lot and often: play ‘slide’. The technique where a metal case worn over one finger slides over the strings. ‘It’s a guitar technique that’s very close to singing’, says Phelps. ‘That’s why I like it so much. It becomes kind of a duet. A dialogue with my guitar.’
Kelly Joe Phelps, past fifty by now, will play in Café ‘t Keerpunt in Spijkerboor this coming Friday. Since the nineties he travels around the world as a singer-songwriter; a late bloomer in that respect. Nor is he a troubadour of the rough cowboy type, that rough diamond, but rather a singer with a velvet voice, melodious songs and, in particular, extremely subtle guitar playing.
As a teenager Phelps became interested in jazz and blues. For years he played in jazz bands. Until in the late Eighties he heard the music of the folk blues men Mississippi Fred McDowell and Robert Pete Williams. A Eureka moment!
Did he deliberately exchange the freedom of jazz for the tighter musical formula of blues and folk? “The improvisation is the best part of jazz”, says the American. “It can be a spiritual experience for both the listener and the player. That is also the challenge in playing traditionals as well as my own songs. You have to try to honour a song that’s already been played thousands and thousands of times. And you don’t do that by copying an earlier version, but by adding new life to it”.
His most recent album was released in late August and is called Brother Sinner & The Whale. A recording with religious songs from start to finish and loosely based on the Bible’s Book of Jona. Kelly Joe Phelps is no recent convert; he has never denied his affinity with Christianity. But never before did he display it as emphatically as on this recording.
“I didn’t select religious lyrics on purpose”, says Phelps. “But I did want to write more directly than previously. My lyrics used to be quite obscure, abstract and mystifying. Maybe that was necessary at the time and it fitted in with my life back then. Over the last two years I have thought a lot about myself and life and have found clear answers in the bible. So that’s what I write about now, as I wrote about what was on my mind way back then.”
“It’s all about me and I try not to preach in my songs. I still play my older songs and still enjoy doing that, because after all, they’re also about me. But musically my new religious insight has had no influence except maybe on the intensity with which I experience the music. That has deepened. But that is as true for my older songs as it is for my new record. For me there’s no difference.”