April 2000

The Girl I Left Behind/Love Me Baby Blues/Fare Thee Well/Piece By Piece/Train Carried My Girl From Town/Lass Of Loch Royale/Katy/Pretty Saro/Wandering Away/Roll Away The Stone/River rat Jimmy/Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues/The Waggoner's Lad/Pretty Polly/Hobo's Son/Blackwater Side

THEY CALLED them folk clubs in the '60's - anything went if it was played on something that used to be a tree. That term's gone, but every Thursday in Belfast former Four Men & A Dog manager Jim Heaney satiates a reborn craving for that exquisitely dangerous, indestructible woody stuff: once folk, blues, jazz, or hillbilly, now a fusion of everything. Such is Heaney's 'Real Music Club' and such is Kelly Joe Phelps: the Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and travelling slaesman of one-time Delta blues.

Formerly a music tutor at various US colleges, Phelps' discovery discovery of Mississippi Fred McDowell 10 years ago resulted in his forging of something simultaneously grounded in the Delta and soaring to the moon. Those who thought they'd nailed his muse with Roll Away The Stone in 1997 had to think again with last year's Shine Eyed Mister Zen - from spine-tingling langour to "a twisted folk thing". If there was anybody at tonight's show still putting Phelps in a bag with Eric Bibb and Keb' Mo' they were in for a shock. As his own agent put it, holding court at the bar with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, "He's gone a bit weird."

Such is the mesmeric blur of Phelps' moaning, free-wheeling vocalising and dizzying guitar impressionism that everything becomes one. There is new material, but even songs familiar from the records are turned inside out in a performance that worships at the shrine of John Coltrane. Wildly extemporised flurries of notes, de-tuned deviations into blissfully unrelated keys and great shimmering slabs of sound are wrenched from Phelps' lap-position guitar with a physicality that belies the speed and accuracy of the notes. Nothing is played, however tangential, that those fingers don't aim to play.

Phelps is unashamedly playing for himself, right to the limits. While the first set is mind-blowing, the second is refreshingly earth-bound, with gentle ballads and a smouldering Appalachian trilogy featuring guest fiddler Tim O'Brien. An encore of Bert Jansch's classic arrangement of Blackwater Side - once the epitome of a guitarist's virtuosity, here made effortless, is played straight and with sincerity, revealing another facet to this extraordinary musician's palette of influences.