HOT PRESS (Ireland & UK)
By SIOBHAN LONG

February 16 2000


KELLY JOE PHELPS may be viewed by some as a bluesman, but the multi-instrumentalist isn't going to be confined by such narrow boundaries.

"Who's gonna shoe yo' feet/Who's gonna glove yo' hand? If I prove false to thee ?"

MUSIC THAT'S not of this world is a scarce commodity these days. Amid times of plenty there are souls starving for something real, something that cuts right to the bone. Kelly Joe Phelps has sated many an appetite with his last two CDs, but it's his live shows that really salve the spirits.

Phelps received a rapturous reception at his recent Whelan's gig, so much so that he was cajoled to return for three encores. Billed as a blues player, he tore strips off our preconceptions by gathering around a sound that was part blues, part folk, but wholly of his own conjuring. Listening to his razor-sharp ramblings on 'River Rat Jimmy' and his wry re-working of 'Wandering Away', even a blind man could see that Kelly Joe had gotten beneath the skin of the music and made it all his own.

A native of Sumner, in the western part of Washington State, 40 miles south of Seattle, Kelly Joe Phelps didn't exactly grow up in a cauldron of blues or folk. "The area I grew in wasn't musically rich," he offers, "but my family was very musical, so it was an integral part of my growing up. My earliest childhood memories are of watching them and listening to them play. So I was raised with the idea that music was something that you did, and not something that you listened to." Phelps has a reputation for playing by his own rules, as opposed to slavishly living by anybody else's rule book. He's collaborated with an eclectic range of musicians form Tim O'Brien to Steve Earle. There are many of the opinion that Phelps has done for folk/blues what Ry Cooder did for Tex Mex with Chicken Skin Music way back in 1976. "I don't necessarily consider myself to be a blues musician," he avers, "and when I started out, I didn't decide that I wanted to play blues music, but at a particular time in my career, blues made sense to me both musically and personally. Even when I was learning to play guitar, at 12 or 13, I was listening side by side to Jimmy Page, John Denver, Chet Atkins and so on. I never followed just one sound."

Phelps has made sure throughout his musical career to test all of the sounds that appealed to his curiosity. Having started out with drums, he subsequently played sax, bass and acoustic and electric guitars, thus creating a virtual orchestra of sounds. "When I wanted to figure out how to play jazz music," he explains, "and how to improvise, and to understand that music both cerebrally and emotionally, I decided that what I needed to do was play a horn - to get inside the music from that angle. So I took some lessons for 2 or 3 years and then I stopped, because after a time, it seemed that I got from it what I needed and then I put it away. Then I went back to the guitar with a different mindset. For me it was trying to be a musician with no regard for the instrument you're playing. In other words, I like the idea that potentially a musician could play music without the instrument dictating what you're going to play."

Despite the plethora of original songs on his last two albums, songwriting is not something that Phelps takes naturally to his bosom. "Songwriting, even though I try to approach it improvisationally, is a very regimental experience," says Phelps . "You have to sit down and deal with the words and try to figure out what kind of music goes with it. It's certainly not natural for me, and I'm trying to figure out a system to write songs that allow the most improvisational room. When I write, I don't really write them as compositions. The words are pretty set, but musically I try to leave room to get inside of it. Every once in a while, I figure out I'm on to something, but you know, it's a slippery fish!'

Whatever his achilles tendon might be, one thing's for sure: Kelly Joe Phelps is going to keep on pushing the outside of the envelope when it comes time to step inside that studio again. "It probably sounds hackneyed to say this," he offers, "but people like John Coltrane and Miles Davis - whether or not you like the records they were putting out - there was always something going on, always something changing. It was vital, and you felt they were really putting everything on the line. And to me that's great, and I can't imagine what music would be like if that's what everybody did. Maybe that's too idealistic, but I still hope it's a trap I fall into!"

< BACK