No more blues for Kelly Joe Phelps
Kelly Joe Phelps
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 9, 2003) – Since he debuted on the national scene in 1997 with his album, “Roll Away the Stone,” singer-guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps has established a stellar reputation as a monster slide-guitarist and country-blues singer.
But on his new album, “Slingshot Professionals” (Rykodisc), which came out earlier this week, the slide guitar and the country blues take a back seat to Phelps’s more moody, folk-jazz compositions. While still bluesy, the material is much more atmospheric, recalling Bruce Cockburn and Tom Waits as much as Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
“I’m trying to always move forward, trying to develop and learn and understand music more,” said Phelps – who performs at Club Helsinki on Saturday night at 8 -- in a recent phone interview from a Toronto hotel.
“When I first started putting out CDs, I was paying a lot of attention to country-blues music, and trying to figure that stuff out. It was influencing my music in a more direct way than it does now.
“If there’s any conscious decision-making going on, it’s that I don’t want to sit still and do the same stuff. I like learning and trying to improve, and I like change.”
A native of the Pacific Northwest, where he still lives in Vancouver, Wash., a small town near Portland, Ore., Phelps said that over time he has grown more interested in the art of original songwriting. As a result, there is less of a focus on traditional country-blues and guitar- picking on his new CD.
“I guess what’s showing up more is probably the fact that I’m playing closer attention to being a writer, whereas previous to that I’ve been spending a lot more focused attention on how to get music out of the guitar,” said Phelps, who has toured throughout Europe, Japan, Australia and Canada. “Now I’m trying to bring those things into a better balance.”
One of the ways he has chosen to achieve that balance is to widen his musical palette by bringing in more musicians. For several albums and tours, Phelps – who has performed on “Prairie Home Companion” and the BBC and been featured on the covers of “Acoustic Guitar” and “Folk Roots” magazines -- was noted for his solo artistry, a lineage he traces back to the solo country-blues artists he was at first trying to emulate.
For “Slingshot Professionals,” Phelps worked with two groups of musicians: guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Keith Lowe in Seattle, and guitarist Steve Dawson, fiddler Jesse Zubot, and bassist Andrew Downing in Toronto. Zubot and Dawson, along with drummer Eliot Polsky and Lowe, will be joining Phelps for the show at Helsinki.
Not that Phelps isn’t accustomed to performing with other musicians. For years before he was a solo singer-guitarist, he played bass in jazz ensembles, first as a straight-ahead player, and eventually in more avant-garde, free-jazz settings.
“I love to improvise, and I like structuring my songs so that I leave plenty of room to explore them musically in performance,” said Phelps. “The end result isn’t coming out sounding like jazz, surely. But the spirit of that exploration and letting the music take its own course -- I keep in touch with that very closely.”
The musicians he currently works with are also known for their combination of rootsy authenticity and open-ended, improvisatory sensibility.
“They’re great improvisers,” said Phelps about Zubot and Dawson, who will warm up the crowd for Phelps. “They have very unique voices on their instruments. They interact amazingly well with each other, and the three of us share that same feeling and sensation. And when we’re playing together, we throw musical ideas at each other all the time, and it brings a good momentum to each song.
“There is somewhat the same sensation there of playing with a jazz group, not because the music comes out sounding jazzlike, but emotionally it feels that way when none of us knows what’s going to happen exactly next. Someone plays something that makes someone play something different.”
Phelps credits his parents for instilling in him a love for music by raising him in an environment where playing instruments was as natural as turning on a TV is in most homes today.
“When you grow up around it, it’s a very natural thing to take on,” said Phelps, who played drums from fifth grade through high school, and who worked as a music teacher throughout the 1980s. “The first and biggest hurdle for getting somebody to play music is getting over the fear of whether or not they can do it.
“But when it’s around the house all the time and you’re watching mom and dad and older brother play music, that’s not even a question. You never even stop to question if you can do that. It’s more a decision of when than if.
“My parents had lots of friends who played music the same way. They’d have these music parties once in a while where everyone would bring their instruments over with their kids, and we’d roll around the floor and they’d all play music and drink.
“People don’t learn instruments like they used to, when it was piano, guitar banjo, fiddle. I suppose with all the electric music today that’s all changed.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 14, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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