By Jack Massarik

February 2, 2000

REBIRTH OF THE BLUES: Kelly Joe Phelps at Jazz Café, London, England

There's more than one way to skin a guitar (not counting with your teeth, or behind your back), and one of the strangest and most beautiful was demonstrated to a captivated Jazz Café last night by a former jazz bass-player raised on Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

Kelly Joe Phelps was nearly 30 when he took up blues guitar, inexplicably drawn to the ancient Delta-blues tradition. Nine years on, he can make a standard Gibson six-string folk model ring like a Dobro resonator. Only he knows how, but it involves laying his instrument flat on its back in his lap and articulating it with a bottleneck, much as a pedal-steel player would. His right hand tweaks the bass strings with thumb and forefinger while hammer-chording the others with fingers three, four and five.

It's a complex skill, and one day Kelly Joe will reveal all to Guitar Player magazine, but what makes him special is his lazy feel for acoustic blues, that gently pulsating melange of one bitter voice and six sweet strings. "It's like making love, isn't it?" breathed a nearby female fan. "So intense."

Swamp fever claimed several such victims as Phelps husked through Train Carried My Girl From Town, Katy, River Rat Jimmy - songs from his Rykodisc album, Shine Eyed Mister Zen, and its humid world of empty pockets, faithless women, hopeless yearning, late trains and early death. These tales had an air of nonchalant authenticity nobody would expect form a slim, crop-haired Caucasian, especially one from Washington state, next door to Canada and musically a million miles form Mississippi.

Between numbers he revealed a dry sense of humour, but little about himself. Just as well. We' d hate to discover that a modern bluesman has an agent, an accountant, a personal manager and a prenuptial agreement.