The Australian

If high-calibre finger-picked acoustic blues, country and folk-styled guitar accompaniment is a dying art, someone forgot to tell Kelly Joe Phelps.

The American troubadour's sleight of hand mastery of the technique combines with bottleneck, a beguilingly mellifluous voice and the most literary spiritual songs this side of Bob Dylan's dalliance with the Good Book to truly mesmerise in Brother Sinner & the Whale.

In his latest musical pilgrimage, Phelps re-examines his Christian roots with assistance from the Old Testament's Book of Jonah. If it's not exactly a secularist road that he travels, straddling the divide between heaven and hell, sin and salvation and redemption and despair, it is one mercifully free of proselytising.

Atheists may have a problem with the scriptures but not the sentiments expressed in verses such as those contained in Hard Time They Never Go Away: "Cold, long and weary; the winter's gone dead./ Busted up ol' overcoat, coverin' my head./ It's one more season of trying to lay it down,/ 'Damn ol' life,' I mumble, to no one around."

Within the parameters of Phelps's inimitable playing and non-orthodox modus operandi can be discerned genuflections to fellow guitar gods as he eschews more familiar lap steel for standard guitars (a National resonator and a Martin Dreadnought).

On the rag-like Goodbye to Sorrow and other songs asserting the importance of faith, his right-hand finesse references country blues leviathans such as Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Blind Willie Johnson, the Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Blake and Big Bill Broonzy. The ghosts of other Delta legends -- maybe even Robert Johnson -- hover over the glorious slide blues ballads Talkingto Jehova and the album's only non-original work, I've Been Converted. The aforementioned Hard Time They Never Go Away, on the other hand, brings to mind the recently departed Doc Watson's 10-fingered folk-gospel style. Sometimes a Drifter and Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehova, the latter containing strains of the rousing Welsh anthem Cwm Rhondda/ Bread of Heaven, have been imbued with a hymn-like quality.

Year: 
2012