ALL MUSIC GUIDE
By THOM JUREK
February 1, 2005

There are few artists who offer the raw sincerity and accomplished musical acumen that guitarist, singer, and songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps does. From his first offering, Lead Me On on the Burnside label, through his subsequent studio outings for Rykodisc, Phelps has done something remarkable: forged himself a solid identifying mark as a folk and blues musician of distinction in fields owing so much to the past that latter-day performers are usually crushed under the weight of them. Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind is a collection of solo live performances recorded n California in 2004. Lee Townsend, who has long been affiliated with him, produced the set. It opens with a nine-and-a-half-minute version of Skip James' "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues." Phelps snakily moves the tune through various modes and modulations, delving deep into Delta blues tonalities and backside melodies that open up spaces inside it. His voice, smoky and sweetly raspy, is never harsh, though it often sounds like it is inhabited by ghosts. It's a stunner. The other cover here is a smoking version of the late Rev. Gary Davis' "I Am the Light of the World." Dignified, soulful, and spot-on musically, Phelps is a dynamite guitarist who adds, subtracts, and morphs figures onto the original fingerstyle lines, and uses his voice to offer evidence of the timelessness of the lyric. And as moving and virtuosic as these two performances are, it's his own songs that offer the true prize of this collection. There's "Jericho," with its spooky droning bassline just under some slippery, winding fingerstyle playing, all of it supporting a vocal that comes from some lost world, just beyond the pale, to impart a tale from antiquity that weighs heavily on the forbidding present juncture. The stinging folk-blues of "Gold Tooth" showcases Phelps' ability to make the strings literally dance as his singing tugs at the ends of lines while driving others deeper into the spectral groove. The tenderness inherent in "Waiting for Marty" is elegiac, full of sepia tones and the notion of bittersweet memory. Here is the place where longing, regret for a life squandered, and the acceptance of things as they are — even as they drift away into the ether and invisible history — makes for a song that is literally unlike any other. Simply stated, if there is one recording that captures the sum of the magic, power, and poetry that is Kelly Joe Phelps, this one's it.

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