THE INDEPENDENT (British press)
July 16, 1999

WHITE BLUESMEN used to be 10 a penny in rock'n'roll, waiting out their facsimiles of someone else's pain.
Kelly Joe Phelps, though, is different; like the generation of young black bluesmen who take their lead from Taj Mahal - prodigious talents such as Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart - his devotion is to the acoustic blues tradition of Leadbelly and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
The most significant difference separating Phelps from most of his white forebearers, however, is the conviction of his connection to those sources - the naturalness with which he wields both the slide guitar and the old blues imagery.
I saw him perform only once, at a small, intimate wake for his fellow musician Rainer Ptacek, and it was clear as soon as Phelps began playing that he was something special: his command of his instrument was mesmerisingly dextrous, but not in the deliberate, showboating manner of electric blues guitarists.
What was so fascinating about his slide bar technique was the casual, unobtrusive way in which it tracked the emotional contours of a song, each note being shaded and weighted to fit its task in an almost offhand manner, as if he'd never even bothered to think about it.
That kind of honesty burns through Shine Eyed Mister Zen, where Phelps's ego remains firmly subservient to his emotions, whether he's reinterpreting old songs such as "The House Carpenter" and Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene", or using old forms as the mould within which to cast his own observations.
Sometimes, it's hard to see where one leaves off and the other takes up, as with his "Dock Boggs Country Blues", where the venerable white bluesman's meditation on the fiscal fickleness of friends serves as a template for Phelps's own complaints.
As with so many travelling musicians, Phelps's own songs, for example "Wandering Away" and "Train Carried My Girl From Town", are riddled with departure and dismay, with regret at the ease with which responsibilities can be abandoned.
Elsewhere, childhood memories ("River Rat Jimmy") and ruminations upon time and family ("Piece By Piece") are delivered in a husky, powder-blue voice that is every bit as naturally engaging as Phelps's guitar-playing.
Like all the great blues singers, he's never afraid of exposing the raw nerves of his emotions, and this results in some of the most soulful blues expressions of recent years. In its near-egoless modesty and absolute commitment, Shine Eyed Mister Zen offers a potent reaffirmation of the power of the natch'l blues.