Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Zen Guitar

Kelly Joe Phelps heads east

By Ted Drozdowski

JULY 5, 1999:  Kelly Joe Phelps is a traveler. With a pair of acoustic guitars in his car's trunk and notepads scattered about its seats, he drives across the country alone, playing his songs wherever they -- and his booking agent -- take him. "It's better than airplanes," he says. "You get to see the little things in the corner of your eye that grab you, the changing landscape."

He's the same way with his music. Phelps -- who plays Club Passim this Saturday -- was raised in a family where gospel and country were the soundtrack to daily life. From there, he learned to play rock, which led to jazz. That's how he noticed John Coltrane and the possibilities of expression that the great saxophonist's modal music and free-form improvisations encouraged. But the revelation that set Phelps on the current leg of his musical journey was listening to the recordings of acoustic-blues men Skip James, Fred MacDowell, and Robert Pete Williams.

"Hearing their records showed me the way to connect the parts of my entire musical life," the 39-year-old Washington resident explains. "As in free music, the blues they played is about tension and release, but the release is somehow earthbound. Using their example I realized that I could play music that was essentially free but had a root that any listener would be able to respond to."

"Earthbound," however, isn't quite the right word for Phelps's beatific music. On 1997's Roll Away the Stone (Hannibal), his second CD, he marries music born of the juke joint with the type of fervent old-time spirituality that made his blues heroes repent every Sunday morning. With Phelps's burnt-velvet whisper of a voice and the crying peals of his dazzling slide guitar, the songs of this Resurrection-titled album sounded as if they'd been carried through five decades to the present on a warm Mississippi breeze. And it marked a creative leap from his straight-blues debut, Lead Me On (Burnside).

But at a live Boston show after Roll Away the Stone's release, Phelps took his material even further. Laying a Gibson dreadnought across his lap, he staked a claim as one of the world's better guitarists. His seemingly effortless ability to harmonize his voice and his instrument was augmented by 10 fingers that flew like hummingbirds. His bass runs and melodies were decorated with an endless supply of fresh slide licks, tumbles of rapid notes, and soft thumps and scrapes over the strings. Often his execution was more about pure sound than guitar playing -- the music echoing his lyrics' search for something higher.

"There's so much of life that's intangible that I believe there must be another side to it. As a songwriter, that occupies more of my thoughts than any other subject, like relationships or getting drunk. And I was raised in a religious family."

As you'd infer from the title of his new CD, Shine Eyed Mister Zen (Hannibal), which hits stores on July 13, he's still on his musical and spiritual journey, turning onto yet another highway. This time he's headed to the east and north of the Delta, toward the Appalachians, for inspiration. There's less slide -- though his steel bar absolutely sizzles over the strings on the traditional ballad "House Carpenter" -- and more of a pleasing running commentary provided by the endless flow of bubbling licks, notes, slurs, and graceful chords that rise from his deep creative well. His own songwriting remains evocative and colored by spiritual examination. The wistful "River Rat Jimmy," for example, wraps the search for enlightenment in a story about finding the path to adulthood.

Of course, Phelps is still interested in bringing all of his interests together. So it's no shock that his version of the great mountain musician Doc Boggs's "Country Blues" veers as close to the cottonlands as the high hills. His current fusion of folk, country, blues, free improvisation, and spirituals is simply the accumulation of the musical souvenirs he continues to collect on his journey.

"Pushing the doors open wider and having more experiences of my own," the introspective musician ruminates, "having the music that comes out of my guitar be like nothing that's been here -- that would justify my being here. Just like the country blues players I've responded to in the past, nobody else sounds like Doc Boggs or Roscoe Holcomb. These mountain artists also played music based on a very loose structure and improvised to a high degree. There's so much strength and beauty, and that comes through the music they play. You hear foremost the sound of an individual human being. I'd like to find that kind of character."

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Music: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics . Search

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . The Boston Phoenix . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch