NEW YORK TIMES
By Ann Powers
February 9, 2000
FINGERS ON GUITAR
Kelly Joe Phelps has a wise right hand.
When playing his lap-steel acoustic guitar at the Knitting
Factory, he would sometimes anchor that hand by the pinky
and pick, his thumb and three other fingers whirling
across the strings. On other songs, he would hold three
fingers still and get a steadier but equally swift flow
of notes from his index finger and thumb. Occasionally
that right hand would run free across the guitar's body,
strumming lightly up the fretboard and down to the bottom
of the strings.
All the while, Mr. Phelps's left hand was flying its own imaginative course,
usually aboard a metal slide but sometimes lightly pressing notes into the fretboard
or reaching to detune a string. The relationship between left and right hand
determines Mr. Phelps's style, just as the meeting of left and right brain defines
analytical side of this music links Delta blues with free jazz and
jazz-folk, in compositions and arrangements as tied to the spacious
melodicism of Joni Mitchell as to the well-grounded improvisations
of blues masters like Mississippi Fred McDowell. The intuitive side
contradicts all categories in performances that are never the same
twice. Mr. Phelps may have growled and moaned like a postage-stamp
bluesman in his performance last Wednesday, but his croon also invoked
the light phrasing of Paul Simon; his playing may have echoed heroes
like Bukka White, but it also rode on vapors of Bach and Mr. Phelps's
fellow American experimentalist Bill Frisell.
Phelps connects to the blues as poetry; his own lyrics, as in "River
Rat Jimmy," the song that gave him the title to his latest album, "Shine
Eyed Mister Zen,"
are highly metaphorical and as nonlinear as his playing.
Performing the folk standard "Black Waterside,"
he focused on the fairy tale language, his airy playing conjuring a pocket
of supernatural space. On gospel songs, he manipulated his fretboard
to create eerie harmonics as he slipped from a mumble to a falsetto,
as if to follow the soul beyond the physical realm...