August 15, 2006

Outstanding guitarist alters approach on new CD

Gifted guitarist and singer/songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps had already built an international following and established himself as a tremendous player and singer on his five previous releases.

Yet the Portland, Ore.-based Phelps, who plays 3rd & Lindsley tonight, still felt there were some things in his music he wanted to change, and began implementing a new approach in the songs on his new sixth CD Tunesmith Retrofit (Rounder).

“For a long time in writing songs, for me, it was case of getting the guitar riffs down and then fitting the words around them,” Phelps said. “But about five years ago I decided to put more time and importance on what was happening in my compositions lyrically and melodically, to think about the entire song and then decide later what to do with the guitar. I’m more willing now to take time with a lyric, and as a result the songwriting process takes longer, but I’m also more satisfied with the final result.”

Tunesmith Retrofit contains both exacting, superb guitar work and resourceful, thoughtful and exuberant vocals. It also displays Phelps’ thematic range as a composer, plus the number of influences absorbed into his style. There’s the ragtime feel of “MacDougal,” a tribute to the great folk performer Dave Van Ronk that also sees Phelps add the melodica to his acoustic guitar backing.

“Crow’s Nest” and “Spanish Hands” are more traditional story-songs, while “Handful of Arrows” is both a fiery tribute to the late Chris Whitley and one of two pieces on the disc that feature Phelps returning to the banjo, an instrument that he’d abandoned for several years, but which he plays with zest and great skill.

Phelps’ turn toward more lyric-driven material reflects his journey through multiple idioms over his career. Once a devotee of avant-garde jazz and such adventurous types as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, Phelps later gravitated toward both Delta blues players such as Skip James, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Robert Pete Williams and early country singers like Jimmie Rodgers. Eventually, he began truly understanding what he calls “the cross-fertilization process in American music.”

“When you really listen to a Skip James or Robert Pete Williams, then go to an A.P. Carter and hear him talk about the people he heard and admired, you understand both the importance of telling a story and the links that these different musical forms share,” he said.

“It’s made me a better musician and a better songwriter by changing my focus and concentrating more on the power of language, and the way you can effectively balance that with great musicianship.”