Kelly Joe Phelps is inspired by old acoustic blues and by the bible. On Friday he will play at the Slotplaats in Bakkeveen.
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 is past fifty by now. Since the nineties he travels around the world as a singer-songwriter; a late bloomer in that respect. 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 Phelps. “It can be a spiritual experience for both the listener and the player. Especially the music of Ornette Coleman or Don Cherry. But when I heard McDowell and Williams, I also heard that improvisation and consequently the spiritual. Within the musical borders of the genre they are constantly renewing themselves and their repertoire. Each choice that is made is essential”
“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. Some songs have been played by a large number of great blues guys but they have all given them their own twist.”
And that is exactly what Kelly Joe Phelps tries to do. Nearly always solo with just his guitar, without any other musicians. Both on stage as on his records. “That is 100 percent a musical choice” he says. “Making music to me is a form of art like writing poetry or painting. You do that alone as well. For me music is not a group process.”
He proves the point in La Java, the legendary Paris nightclub/cellar where Edith Piaff was so successful in the Fifties. In front of over 100 nearly totally silent listeners, Phelps excels as a guitar player, he plays ‘slide’ on a shiny metal dobro and hops from old to new songs, all totally relaxed and melodious.
Of course he plays songs from his most recent album, released in late August, Brother Sinner & The Whale. A recording loosely based on the Bible’s Book of Jona and his adventures with the whale. Never before did he display his faith 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.”