"Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind"

March 14, 2005

by James Marcus

Bluesman Kelly Joe Phelps emerged from the Pacific Northwest blues circuit in the mid-'90s, decked out in a kind of regional uniform: denim shirt, knit cap, perpetual stubble. It was clear from the start, however, that this was no run-of-the-mill revivalist. He had a smoky, startling baritone and a knack for memorable song craft. And most of all, he displayed a unique mastery of lap-style acoustic slide guitar -- a relatively rare technique that involves laying the instrument flat and fretting it with a heavy steel bar.

Phelps himself is quick to point out his influences. "I listened to slide playing by a lot of the old blues guys, like Skip James, " he says, speaking on the phone in the midst of a British tour. " Just to get that vocabulary inside my head, and I like those lap-steel players on older country records." Yet he played the instrument with a dazzling intensity, exploiting its shivery high end and guttural lows and everything in between. To hear him perform live (and there's a brief, tantalizing sample on his "Beggar's Oil [EP]") was an astonishment.

In 2001, however, Phelps made a bold move: he put the slide away. "For a long time that's all I wanted to play," he allows. "But as my ideas changed and grew, I wanted to hear something different, to feel something different. " Meanwhile, he also halted his run as a one-man band, hiring a drummer and bassist for "Sky Like a Broken Clock" (2001) and a full, five-piece ensemble for "Slingshot Professionals " (2004). It was hard to argue with these discs, which highlighted Phelps ' s own compositions and his elegant finger picking. Yet even his most ardent fans wondered whether he made a mistake by retiring his original ace in the hole. Wasn ' t Phelps most truly at home in the slide zone?

Not in the least. Proof positive is his new live CD, "Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind," recorded during a string of solo gigs earlier this year. Phelps throws down the gauntlet with the very first cut, Skip James's "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues," which he played for nearly a decade as a lap-slide showpiece. Now his fingers do the walking -- and talking -- as he adds a crisp, popping bass line and lots of bluesy ornamentation.

He works similar wonders with the only other non-original song in the batch, the Reverend Gary Davis's "I Am the Light of this World." Phelps has always possessed a killer instinct for gospel-flavored material, whether traditional ( "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder" ) or self-penned ("Lead Me On"). Here, though, he sounds positively ebullient, galloping through this guitarist's anthem ( "I' ve got fiery fingers, and I' ve got fiery hands") with accelerating, joyous momentum.

For the most part, though, "Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind" is devoted to Phelps' own tunes. He cherry-picks the best material from "Slingshot Professionals, " including lovely, gliding performances of "Not So Far To Go," "Jericho," and "Waiting for Marty." At this point it's clear that his compositions fall into two overlapping categories: miniature stories (like
"Tommy") and impressionistic sequences of imagery, in which mood trumps narrative by a country mile. And the latter pieces, like "Cardboard Box of Batteries," seem closest to his heart.

"It's almost like a code," Phelps explains, " which forces you to unlock it, or to climb inside of it. What I'm doing in 'Cardboard Box of Batteries' is trying to put words around a sensation -- but the images don't necessarily connect up in any logical way, because they don't for me, either. It's kind of an experiment," he decides, laughing in acknowledgement of his non-logical explanation.

Well, sure. At his weakest, Phelps favors a sort of low-calorie surrealism, which he seems unwilling to wrestle into coherence. At his best, the fractured, elliptical phrases add up to something, even if neither he nor we can put our finger on precisely what. "I've a cardboard box of batteries hidden in a tire swing," he declares, "a miner's hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings." There's a mournful message in there -- a cryptic little meditation on hope and hopelessness -- and what we can't piece together from the lyrics is eloquently conveyed by the halting melody.
Go ahead, Phelps seems to be saying: climb inside.

And while you're at it, check out that singing. As a vocalist, Phelps has always been forced to make a virtue of his limitations: his voice has great warmth, utter conviction (no fatuous white-boy drawling here), but a fairly limited range. Little by little he's pushed the envelope, adding falsetto, stretching out the odd syllable like melismatic taffy.

On "Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind" he sounds more relaxed than ever before, and more confident. He brings a new tenderness to "Not So Far To Go," an edge of panic to the imagistic free-for-all of "Gold Tooth," and buttresses both his singing and playing with an assortment of moans, groans and half-muttered asides. Phelps may be one of those singers who need a live audience to bring them to a full boil (which isn't to denigrate the satisfying simmer of his studio work.) In any case, he's never sung better, which makes this set a double-barreled success.

And what about those diehard slide fans? Take heart: there is a gleam of hope. When I asked Phelps whether he had permanently abandoned the technique, he seemed to do a certain amount of hedging: "It's been a good two years since I carried a slide with me to a gig. Still, I've never made a conscious decision not to play that way. I guess I'm waiting to be re-inspired by it." If that happens, great. But given his masterful picking on "Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind," there's no hurry. Phelps has all the inspiration he needs -- and it's at his fingertips.