ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 16, 1999
By Steve Newton
When singer-songwriter-guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps released his second album, Roll Away the Stone, in 1997, it didn’t take long for the accolades to come rolling in. Q magazine gave it four stars, Blues Revue hailed it as “the acoustic blues album of the year”, and Musician described Phelps’s slide-guitar technique as “capable of chilling the spine, if not raising the dead”.
But it wasn’t just the critics who were won over by the musician based in Vancouver, Washington. “Kelly Joe Phelps is a great example of what the modern blues is all about,” stated U2’s the Edge. “His music has the authority of the great blues without any hint of rehash or retread.” And in the notes for his newest CD, Shine Eyed Mr. Zen, such disparate artists as country rocker turned bluegrass ace Steve Earle and eclectic guitar wizard Bill Frisell line up to pay compliments, the latter calling Phelps “an inspiration”.
Having a player of Frisell’s status claim something like that really makes Phelps proud. “He’s been a hero of mine for years,” the guitarist reports from a phone booth somewhere between Dallas and Houston, “so that’s just a complete treat for me.”
Like most musicians, Phelps is quick to hand out compliments himself, as evidenced by the slightly cosmic track-by-track notes he wrote to accompany his current Rykodisc bio. In reference to Huddie Ledbetter (aka Leadbelly), whose 1936 tune “Goodnight Irene” closes the CD, Phelps writes: “Aliens are carting off boxes of Leadbelly records and probing them for signs of unforeseen wisdom, insight, and intelligence.”
“I like Leadbelly a lot,” says Phelps, who plays the St. James Community Hall on Friday (September 17). “He’s a good example to me of a musician who has a foundation in country blues, but who spreads a folk-music form out over the top of that.”
Like Roll Away the Stone, Phelps’s new disc was recorded in the living room of his apartment. That solitary setting enhances the lonesome, haunting effect of tunes like “River Rat Jimmy”, “Wandering”, and Shine Eyed Mr. Zen’s other songs of quiet yearning and abiding faith. There’s a strong spiritual vibe to many of the tracks, the best example being “Many a Time”. “Many a time I thought I had fallen down,” Phelps sings, “away by the wayside away from grace/My heart torn asunder, my legs buckle under me/I have one promise and I have one prayer/Only believe, thou gonna be saved.”
“Well, I am [spiritual] in some context,” Phelps relates. “Not in the evangelical sense, by any means, just in trying, I suppose, to honestly represent what motivates me to play music.”
Although Phelps injects vast amounts of heart and soul into his music, he is still surprised at the critical success that’s come his way in recent years. “Every one of the CDs I put out, I felt like it was a pretty big gamble,” he notes. “I mean, on the one hand it’s a solo act, and to get any sort of response—when a lot of the CDs vying for attention are more people and more noise, I just always wonder what the reaction is gonna be. But the response was overwhelming, and one of the strongest ways in which it overwhelmed me was the reception it got in areas other than blues audiences—which is why, when people like Steve Earle and Bill Frisell have something like that to say, it really makes me feel good. I very much like the idea that the music is reaching far beyond its root level, you know.”