October 1999

Roots-music adventures with Kelly Joe Phelps

FOR KELLY JOE PHELPS, IMPROVISATION isn't a matter of tweaking the tempo or stringing together different licks in a solo - it's the very core of his music, as he reharmonizes, re-creates, and even creates songs night after night. So what we hear on his new album, Shine Eyed Mister Zen , is a snapshot of what he laid down with his fingers, slide, and voice on particular days when microphones were set up to capture them. On different days - even on another set of takes - he would have made a different album. And as soon as the tape stops rolling and Phelps takes the stage again, the songs continue to breathe and evolve without regard to what gets encased in plastic on the CD rack.

Which isn't to suggest that what does get captured on disc is unsatisfying in any way. Quite the opposite: Shine Eyed Mister Zen is a deep, soulful journey through American roots music, played by one of the finest guitarists at work today. With his dusky voice and peerless lap slide guitar, Phelps reinvents old songs like "House Carpenter," and "Goodnight Irene" alongside originals that grow right out of the same rich soil. He picks up an open-tuned standard guitar with anything but standard results, from the feisty blues "Katy" to the cheerfully dissonant "Many a Time" to warp-speed modal picking on "Capman Bootman." On "Piece by Piece," Phelps is joined by Dave Mathis on blues harp, but he's best left to his own devices - his guitar is a turn-on-a-dime bebop, blues, and Appalachian string band all wrapped up into one. His playing is truly monstrous - he's one of the elite who seem to be able to play anyhting he can conjure - but it's shorn of all the ego and theatrics that usually accompany guitar heroism. Phelps is a virtuoso improviser who really only likes to play songs, not licks.

All this description will be familiar to anyone who had the good fortune to pick up Phelps' last Rykodisc album, Roll Away the Stone , or catch the man himself on stage. As evidenced on Shine Eyed Mister Zen , one of the chief developments in the two years since Roll Away the Stone is that, in terms of chops and sophistication, Phelps' standard guitar work is now on a par with his slide style (on his first solo album, the Burnside release Lead Me On , he played only lap slide). If anything, his standard guitar playing has become even more varied and idiosyncratic than his state-of-the-art slide work. He also shows tremendous growth as a songwriter, achieving the kind of spiritual union with traditional sources that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have found in the old-time country vein. Phelps' haunting "River Rat Jimmy" and barreling "Capman Bootman" are just as weird and unforgettable as songs that have been passed down through generations.

Who woulda thunk that a guy playing lap slide guitar would lead us down this path, where the harmonic seeking of jazz meets the musical world of the Harry Smith Anthology ? Make no mistake: there's something rare and wondrous going on in Kelly Joe Phelps' music, which is deep rooted yet exhilaratingly free.