Kelly Joe Phelps joins the jam-bandwagon
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 16, 2003) – Kelly Joe Phelps built his reputation on his innovative approach to guitar based in country-blues finger-picking, with elements of jazz tonality and virtuosic dynamic control making him something of an original.
In recent years, Phelps has expanded his palette beyond traditional country blues, in favor of his own, somewhat free-form compositions that allow him more freedom and flexibility of personal expression, both musically and lyrically.
Judging from the response of the sold-out crowd at Club Helsinki on Saturday night, Phelps’s loyal, almost cult-like following is along for the ride, buying into a new approach that also now includes working with an acoustic, improvisational-minded, roots-music band called Zubot and Dawson.
But to these ears, the freedom that Phelps has purchased for himself has come at a steep price, one that costs him in terms of musical coherence and focus.
Phelps’s assets were all still on display. His playing was phenomenal, shimmering with clarity without being show-offy, but with the stark, percussive beauty of a piano. His notes popped and rang as he curled himself over his guitar, almost becoming one with his instrument, rendering orchestral effects from his six steel strings. One could, and many did, just sit back and soak it in and marvel at the technical and sonic accomplishments of this very accomplished player.
But Phelps wants to be taken seriously as a singer and a songwriter, and it is on these grounds that he falls woefully short. His songs lacked structure and focus, his melodies were vague or non-existent, and his colors were all the same -- dark greens and blues.
Not even the addition of the Zubot and Dawson quartet added much to Phelps’s mix, and after an opening set by the ensemble it was clear why. Zubot and Dawson suffer from many of the same afflictions. A jam-band disguised as a string-band, the group has immense technical chops but little musical imagination. Instead of stating musical ideas and exploring them and expanding upon them, fiddler/mandolinist Jesse Zubot and guitarist Steve Dawson just played riffs. It was all mood music, and it was all the same mood.
The whole jam-band phenomenon has been a mixed bag for modern music. On the one hand, music fans are supporting groups that have nothing to do with the corporate music industry, championing accomplished musicians who genuinely play their instruments and are open to exploring myriad styles and influences. This, of course, is good.
On the other hand, however, it has opened the door to an aesthetic of aimless noodling in the name of improvisation, and tempted established artists – like jazz guitarist John Scofield and newgrass banjoist Bela Fleck – to dumb down their music to appeal to the jam-band crowd by adding funky bass lines and substituting riffage for harmonic invention.
Look for Kelly Joe Phelps at a jam-band festival coming to your town soon.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 19, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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