With nine releases in 17 years, Kelly Joe Phelps is more studied than prolific. Yet as he reveals each new chapter in his musical story, his rich personal growth is fully documented. With his ’95 debut Lead Me On he announced a fresh take on authenticity that hasn’t faltered since, leaning on his sizeable skills as a fingerpicking, bottleneck slide guitarist with a slightly rasped, swamp-splashed voice perfectly matched to the gospel and prewar blues material he seemed to specialize in, together with his seamless originals. As time moves on, he has surpassed all predictions with the poetic touch of his original tunes and his voice has become the rich musical counterpart to his phenomenal gifts on guitar.
Brother Sinner and the Whale is more of the same—much to look forward to, themed to the Old Testament’s book of Jonah. This is not to say that Phelps has been necessarily born again or even, perhaps, for the first time—the book of Jonah presents him with a somewhat ironic, narrative drama between a passive man and an active God. The soulful, old-time gospel category has always been one of the more consistent arrows in Phelps’s always-innovative, creative quiver. That this concept fits him like a glove can be no surprise—yet it’s still a thrill to hear how far he takes it.
Two instrumentals stand tall: Spit Me Outta The Whale is simply a graceful blend of solo fingerstyle guitar to smooth, sultry slide while Brother Pilgrim takes on a slightly harder edge but no less graceful thanks to Phelps’s deft touch on National Steel. Hard Time They Never Go Away is a double-handed extravaganza, delivered with gentle caress of his soulful vocal. Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehova is a personal favourite, recalling a treasured hymn from the days of being dragged to church. Had I heard this first version first, Lord knows where I’d be now.