February 2009

PHELPS: For every guitarist

The music of Kelly Joe Phelps is often characterized as a mixture of delta blues and jazz, but it transcends such limiting labels. He started by playing and studying jazz, drawing inspiration from free jazz players like Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. He later converted to blues and blended elements of the two into his own style. One might call it "free blues" as it seems firmly rooted in Delta blues, but is filled with harmonic and rhythmic twists and turns.

His 2003 album Slingshot Professionals featured collaborations with Steve Dawson, Jesse Zubot and Bill Frisell.

Western Bell is the first solo instrumental album by Phelps, and it is truly mind-blowing in its originality and technique.

His playing has been described as 'virtuosic and courageous' by some, and every track on Western Bell is downright compelling. The lap steel playing is chilling and the alternate tunings leave you scratching your head and wondering. Many of the pieces are improvised on the spot, and the spontaneity adds to the intrigue.

Highlights include the old-time sounding title track, the rubato flow of "American Exchange Hotel," and the slide magic of "Blowing Dust 40 Miles." "Hometown With My Melody" has Phelps playing a 12-string and sounding like Leo Kottke, but more outside.

Other standout tracks include "The Jenny Spin," "East to Kansas," and "Little Family." Every guitarist alive should own this album.

Kelly Joe Phelps plays at Hugh's Room in Toronto on March 8.