Kelly Joe Phelps is in awe of Steve Dawson’s slide-guitar playing


By Steve Newton

Over the course of his first four albums, Kelly Joe Phelps made a name for himself as a singer-songwriter who, according to music critic–turned–film director Cameron Crowe, “speaks to the soul of each and every listener”. Along the way he also gained a reputation as a slide guitarist with a magical touch.

So it’s kind of surprising that for his upcoming fifth CD, Slingshot Professionals, he passed all the bottleneck duties on to Steve Dawson, of Vancouver acoustic-roots sensations Zubot & Dawson. Phelps had sung and played guitar on a couple of tracks from Z & D’s 2001 CD, Chicken Scratch, and when the time came to record Slingshot, he made sure Dawson and fiddle maestro Jesse Zubot—along with bass ace Andrew Downing—were all over it.

When asked how he ranks Dawson as a slide player, Phelps can only come up with the words awesome, brilliant, and mind-boggling. If pressed further, he no doubt would have thrown a phenomenal in there.

“He comes up with so many sounds and different combinations of notes,” raves Phelps from his home in Vancouver, Washington, “and plays in lotsa different tunings. And he interacts incredibly well. You know, we talked so little about what to do musically, it was really just a matter of me layin’ out the framework of the song, and everybody—Jesse as well, and Andrew, everybody—just knowing how to fit in and how to spice things up. I’m constantly amazed by the way that those two play together, Jesse and Steve. I mean they’re like fingers of the same glove, you know.”

Not content with having just one fretmaster onboard for his latest CD, Phelps also recruited guitarist Bill Frisell to join in on a couple of tracks. Phelps first met the celebrated picker when he showed up at an in-store gig Phelps was doing at a Seattle record outlet.

“His daughter had been up at the Vancouver folk festival and had heard me play,” he explains, “and she had thought that Bill would like the music. So she brought one of the CDs back home, and he evidently did end up liking it. When he came out to the in-store I recognized him—’cause I’d been a fan for years—and he came over and introduced himself. So we had lunch together, and started talkin’ about music and everything, and wanting to play together.”

Slingshot Professionals—which will be released in North America on March 3—is the follow-up to 2001’s Sky Like a Broken Clock, which saw Phelps paired with bassist Larry Taylor (Tom Waits) and drummer Billy Conway (Morphine).

Sky Like a Broken Clock kind of paved the way for me as far as finding my interest leaning more towards the songwriting part of it,” he says, “and less so what I could do with the guitar. That’s the kind of a blatant shift that had happened over the course of the four records, I think.”

Phelps describes the music on Slingshot Professionals as denser and more orchestrated than its predecessor, with more interaction between the players. He notes that the album title comes from the idea of “taking very simple tools and making a big impact with them”.

Expect nothing less when Phelps takes the stage with Zubot and Dawson at North Van’s Capilano College Performing Arts Theatre on Saturday (February 1).

Leave a Reply