THE JAPAN TIMES
[One of the more remarkable musical experiences of 1999 for me, was to spend a few days in Canada with Indian slide guitar player Debashish Bhattacharya. While his face remained a picture of serenity, his hands would be effortlessly racing along the strings at breakneck speed. There are many good Western slide players (Bhattacharya has toured with two of them, Martin Simpson and Bob Brozman), but I never believed they could aspire to that mixture of spirituality and dazzling technique that takes music onto a different plane].
I still don't, but the nearest I've heard is Kelly Joe Phelps. Phelps, from Washington state, draws his spiritual qualities from the likes of Mississippi Fred McDowell or Blind Willie Johnson. For him, music is a mystical experience. When totally caught up in it, oblivious to anything else, he says he becomes a "Shine Eyed Mister Zen" - the title of his latest cd. Phelps is a phenomenal player, but his music is devoid of any pointless flashiness.
He uses his vocals much like an additional instrument, singing in a smoky, gliding tone. Reinterpreting old songs such as "House Carpenter" or Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene" on the new album, he almosts reinvents them while staying true to the core spirit. His own songs appear to come from deep within, with that same sense of emotion and pain. Those songs are constantly evolving, whether Phelps is playing live or on record. He performs with no set list, but prefers to let the ambience dictate. Visually exciting, he bangs out a rhythm on his guitar, jerks his head and switches between lap slide and regular guitar to keep the variety.
Previously a bass player in a jazz group, Phelps believes there is a thread that connects the deep blues of an originator such as Charlie Patton to the saxophone to the improvisations of John Coltrane. It's probably true the blues came from Africa, and jazz came from the blues. Kelly Joe aims to follow that thread and close the gap. No fake "white boy sings the blues", Phelps is the genuine article. American roots music is in safe hands.