March 21, 2009


Inspiration can be a tough thing for even the most experienced songwriters.

Kelly Joe Phelps is a master at weaving musical short stories, complete with indelibly inked characters and strong emotions bubbling just under the surface. But on his new CD Western Bell, which arrives at retail outlets on Tuesday, the stories become soundtracks as Phelps puts down the pen and grapples with his guitar for an instrumental workout.

"It’s kind of its own animal," says Phelps, who appears on Sunday night at Halifax’s Carleton Restaurant. "I had a bunch of time off, late spring and early summer, and I suppose I’d been trying to fight through a creatively dry period. I hadn’t written a new song in a long time or come up with a solid set of lyrics in a long time, and I didn’t really feel like I wanted to.

"But you yearn desperately to be in a creative space. So I found myself driving back home from a tour that wrapped up in New York, and I realized what I wanted to do was not worry about it so much and just get home and start playing on some guitars."

Sunday’s show marks the Portland, Oregon-area performer’s third visit to Nova Scotia; he played the 2003 Atlantic Jazz Festival following the release of Slingshot Professionals and The Stan Rogers Folk Festival in 2006 while touring behind its follow-up Tunesmith Retrofit (he also performs tonight at George’s Roadhouse in Sackville, N.B.).

While he occasionally gives his husky growl a rest to let his advanced picking and slide-playing skills take centre stage, Western Bell is different in that it’s nearly all improvised from the moment the record button is pushed, with Phelps letting his thoughts spill out through his fingers into new patterns and using unusual tunings.

It wasn’t even really supposed to be a record — "Mostly I was trying to feed my soul," he says with a slight chuckle — instead hoping to come up with something that might translate into a composition that could then bear lyrical fruit. But he shared his home recordings with the one other person on the planet who he thought he could talk about it with, Vancouver guitarist and close friend Steve Dawson, who saw the instrumental pieces as standing up on their own and offered to release them on his label Black Hen Records.

"This is my eighth record, and I think that gives me some room to do something that could be seen as a little unusual," says Phelps. "It doesn’t mean that I’m changing gears, and I’m certainly not going to show up in Halifax and play nothing but instrumental music.

"When I tour and play shows, it’s more like a collective of my records, rather than just focusing on one. The record is a creative statement, like a painting or a new book that gets added to the catalogue . . ." In a way, Western Bell brings Phelps back full circle. His early background is in jazz and improvisation, and his early records were rooted in traditional acoustic blues and his fierce slide guitar playing. However, instead of revisiting the past, he approaches those roots with renewed sense of innovation and adventure.

Since Phelps considers bringing a greater degree of spur-of-the-moment playing to the realm of folk and singer-songwriters a calling card, a record like Western Bell is a liberating experience. "I just go on stage with the bones of a song and put the flesh on it there, so each night it becomes a different person."

Tickets are for Kelly Joe Phelps at the Carleton are $30 (plus tax) and can be purchased by calling 422-6335.

’I just go on stage with the bones of a song and put the flesh on it there, so each night it becomes a different person.’