September/October, 2006

Few songwriters wear the mantle of troubadour as unassumingly as Kelly Joe Phelps. Eschewing the cloying introspection that tends to prevail among the coffeehouse crowd, Phelps writes snapshot vignettes born of short-story traditions and delivers them in sturdy acoustic settings drawn from folk, free jazz, and country blues. An exemplary fingerpicker in the Leo Kottke mold, Phelps also tempers his guitar prowess to serve the song.
Tunesmith Retrofit is leaner and more spartan than 2003’s Slingshot Professionals, putting the light squarely on his songwriting. “Crow’s Nest”, the opening track, sets the tone; centered on Phelps’ rapid-fire but unobtrusive fingerpicking, splashes of fiddle, and craggily intimate vocals, it brings to mind the recent work of Richard Thompson. Similar moments include “Spanish Hands”, which (despite its title) bears heavy Celtic traces; “Plumb Line”, which straddles the border between Kottke and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell; and “Red Light Nickel”, a straight-up folk song in the Gordon Lightfoot vein.
Occasionally Phelps reaches back to the adventurous spirit that shaped his early career. “Big Shaky” toggles wonderfully between country blues and improvisatory jazz, while “MacDougal” (one of three instrumentals on the album) is a sprightly homage to the late Dave Van Ronk.
Phelps also brings out his banjo for a couple of songs, most notably “Handful Of Arrows”, a fiery, Native American-driven tribute to the late Chris Whitley that’s a high point of the set.