Kelly Joe Phelps: Shine Eyed Mister Zen
by George Graham
(Ryko 10476 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/18/99)
It's encouraging to see the revival of acoustic blues these days. Artists including Keb' Mo', Corey Harris, Eric Bibb, and Guy Davis, along with some long-time electric blues artists, are playing the blues while unplugged on recent releases, with some excellent results. This week we have the third recording by an exclusively acoustic blues-influenced musician who has been attracting a fair amount of attention with his distinctive style and impressive guitar work. The CD is by Kelly Joe Phelps and it's called Shine Eyed Mister Zen.
Kelly Joe Phelps is from the Pacific Northwest, and interestingly started out as a jazz bass player, specializing in avant-garde improvisational music. But he became enchanted by the early blues masters, and their music which seemed to reach some place very deep in the soul. Phelps said that he saw a kind of emotional connection between the Delta and country blues of Mississippi Fred McDowell and the soaring but often plaintive improvisations of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Phelps is also a singer-songwriter, doing mostly original material in what he calls a "twisted kind of folk" style. He brings the combination of the instrumental virtuosity of jazz with an appealingly relaxed vocal style, and often poetic, allegorical lyrics to create some music that is often downright arresting. And as on his previous recordings, Phelps performs alone with no overdubbing, making it all the more distinctive.
Phelps' debut CD Lead Me On was released in 1994 and featured a similar combination of laid-back versions of traditional blues tunes with original material, but the dominant musical direction was acoustic country or Delta style blues. Now five year later, Phelps' overall sound is outwardly similar, but this is a more stylistic eclectic album. His jazz background becomes more apparent with tunes which can get harmonically complex, and he also shows what I hear as some Celtic and British Isles influence. I find it interesting that English guitarists like Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Richard Thompson were fascinated by the blues and added some of that influence to their music which also drew on traditional British Isles folk. Now Phelps turns around and brings to his playing some of the decorative filigree of those British players, along with the often plaintive modal motifs that straddle the blues, traditional American Appalachian folk, and centuries old tunes from England and Ireland. Phelps applies this eclectic vision to both his original compositions and his versions of traditional songs. Other of his originals sound like the work of a sophisticated singer-songwriter with literate lyrics and lots of interesting chord changes, but performed in a bluesy solo setting with slide guitar. The result is an absorbing and yet very appealing dichotomy between the earthy bluesman and worldly composer-poet.
For guitar fans, though, probably the first thing one notices is Phelps' fretwork prowess. He mixes fleet folk-style fingerpicking with bluesy slide work in a way that few players do. That is illustrated on the CD's opening track, which is in itself a fascinating blend. The House Carpenter is a traditional folk song that exists on both sides of the Atlantic. It's one of those tragic ballads with a love triangle, and the principal characters die in the end, in this case, in a shipwreck. Phelps writes that his version of the song was inspired by the Appalachian country-folk singer Clarence Ashley. Phelps' arrangement is distinctly bluesy, while his guitar work is quite remarkable. <<>>
Phelps' folkie facet is highlighted on the following track, River Rat Jimmy, whose lyrics are paean to youthful enthusiasm. Phelps keeps his guitar slide off on this one, but the song still has a plaintive quality. <<>>
Another of the really creative tracks stylistically is Katy, which combines some of the ornamentation and modal qualities of Celtic music with a kind of bluesy lament. The lyrics which tell another story of sex and violence are Phelps' originals, sound like an old folk song. <<>>
Phelps' composition Wandering Away is kind of archetypical singer-songwriter work, with literate lyrics about family difficulties and the desire to run away from them. The piece has a distinctly folky sound, but every so often Phelps will throw in a little bluesy slide guitar work. <<>>
Of the original songs, perhaps the most straight-ahead bluesy is Piece by Piece, whose lyrics consider the wisdom of age and an effort to obtain it. The track is the only one with a guest musician, David Mathis, who plays a melancholy-sounding harmonica. Despite the sound of the song, in typical Phelps fashion, this is no three-chord blues. <<>>
Phelps applies his distinctive stylistic blend to another traditional song Train Carried My Girl from Town, which he writes was inspired by an old slide guitarist named Frank Hutchison. Again there is the mixture of folk-style fingerpicking with bluesy slide guitar work. <<>>
For me the most remarkable track on this album is Capman Bootman dominated by some amazing guitar flatpicking, showing influence from Celtic to bluegrass. The composition itself is quite interesting, with rather opaque lyrics inspired by a fellow named Wallace Stevens who moved to Seattle with his dog to be a musician. <<>>
The album ends with a very creative arrangement of the familiar song Goodnight Irene, by Huddy Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. This staple of 1960s folk hootenannies is given an unexpected melodic and harmonic reworking, something that jazz musicians often do -- understandble given Phelps' background -- though his version comes out as an introspective folk-style lullaby. <<>>
Kelly Joe Phelps' new third CD Shine Eyed Mister Zen is a remarkable recording that shows the power of simplicity in making for very memorable music. With just his guitar and vocal, Phelps applies his considerable skills with both to come up with an album that is a striking combination of virtuosic instrumentalizing, literate songwriting and really interesting mixtures of styles from Celtic to blues, all in the context of a generally relaxed, laid-back mood. Phelps has been attracting growing numbers of fans and critical accolades over the past five years, and this new CD should help spread his reputation further.
Sonically this album is respectable but could be improved upon. It's a bit odd in stereo, with the vocals slightly off to the left and the guitar tending toward the right, instead of having the guitar miked in stereo to give it some depth. The guitar sound, though pleasing, could have been a bit richer and warmer. The dynamic range is decent, though some compression was applied which is audible in spots detracting from the subtleties of this all-acoustic performance.
Shine Eyed Mister Zen is an excellent CD that holds something for those who like acoustic blues, fans of outstanding guitar playing, and aficionados of good singer-songwriters.
(c) Copyright 1999 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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