March 2000

London, The Jazz Café

KELLY Joe Phelps' slide guitar seemed to spring into independent life at the multiple climaxes of 1997's breakthrough LP, Roll Away The Stone, to ripple and snake into unknown territory for the country blues he allegedly played, to squeeze out sounds touching the searching jazz that ad once been his trade, to mutate through more layers than 12 strings should hold. And the songs - half traditional, half his, their pleas for God's mercy beyond the grave healed the spirit in ways disbelievers, in Bibles or blues, could feel. Last year's Shine Eyed Mister Zen took another twist as Phelps - "I'm not necessarily a blues player" - turned the technique down and the songwriting up, attempting the austere death-folk recalled in Dylan's World Gone Wrong, territory surely as alien to this 37-year-old, middle-class Washington State native as to the 58-year-old Minnesotan. In genres so leeched of life for so long, casualty ward cases drip-fed on nostalgia, phelps' records stirred blood.

It's a reality-lurch seeing Phelps in the flesh, the gaunt, shadowy figure of photos strolling on stage as a close-cropped near-beauty, a blues Evan Dando. He's surreally funny between songs too, a supple entertainer, an observant traveller - closing his third British tour, he mordantly dissects our collapsing railway system before his own train song (his guitar like whipping power lines, "Almost crashed there, almost crashed").

He finds new shapes and words for his songs, sweetening the pill of the graveyard stuff with Dylanesque insults, still slipping in the fear:

"I read my Bible/Surely he will hear me/I wanna go there/When I die& ." His own mysterious, intangible song of childhood blood-bonds and terror, "River Rat Jimmy", may be the highlight, but through it all Phelps contorts his face, moans and howls, looks like he's chewing Mississippi tobacco, half-playing the part of bluesman. And he strides, slides and strokes the guitar laid flat on his lap, karate-chops its strings, beats its body like a drum, yanks out brief glittering electricity, matches the half-whistling sound of his mouth, the faraway holler of a train that keeps coming.

Somewhere, in some Surrey mansion, Eric Clapton lazily maintains what he plays is the blues. Phelps doesn't bother; he's better than that.