"There are few
artists who offer the raw sincerity and accomplished musical
acumen that guitarist, singer and songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps
does... Phelps has done something remarkable: forged himself
a solid identifying mark as a folk and blues musician of
distinction in fields that owe so much to the past, latter
day performers are usually crushed under the weight of them...
His voice, smoky and sweetly raspy is never harsh, though
it often sounds like it is inhabited by ghosts... Dignfied,
soulful and spot on musically, Phelps is a dynamite guitarist...
It's his own songs that offer the true prize." - Thom Jurek, All Music
"Like the sound of some impossible invention
built from theremin, pedal steel, saw, omnichord, sitar and the
whir of hummingbirds, the sound of Kelly Joe Phelps' guitar has
no derivation and no blueprint, save his own soul. He sings with
an urgent, slurred whisper (like he hears the law outside the
juke-joint door), and he writes songs -- sometimes visionary,
mostly sustained by the holy blues -- with creative gravitas
that's soaked in all the experiences of a life deeply lived.
One doesn't expect such lyrical and vocal talent from virtuoso
guitar improvisers. Like Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt, Phelps
reconfigures the blues with every pluck and breath. Like no one
else filed under "folk," he creates his own tradition." - Roy
Kasten, Riverfront Times
"More than just an awesomely talented
musician, Kelly Joe Phelps speaks to the soul of each and every
listener." - Cameron Crowe
"Phelps' songwriting mirrors
the subtlety that distinguishes his guitar work. His songs
are also infused with poignancy, passion and spirtiuality." - The Washington
"His cadence is so hypnotizing,
his rough voice so evocative, his guitar work so deeply entwined
with his singing." - Boston
"...textured, pure, noble and
moving. Call it art." - Pulse!
musical evolution of the celebrated singer, songwriter and guitarist
Kelly Joe Phelps reaches a new level of clarity and intimacy with Tap
the Red Cane Whirlwind, the long-awaited recording of his
masterful solo concerts.
Many of Kelly Joe's fans have been anxious for him to release
a live CD for quite some time now. Produced by Lee Townsend, the
new CD is pure unadulterated Kelly Joe Phelps at his finest recorded
in the intimate environments of two venues in which Kelly Joe has
been performing for a number of years - McCabe's in Santa Monica
and The Freight and Salvage in Berkeley.
The repertoire includes seven favorite
Kelly Joe originals, including "Jericho", "Tommy", "Not So
Far to Go", "Fleashine", "Cardboard Box
of Batteries", "Gold Tooth" and "Waiting
for Marty" plus astonishing versions of two classic cover
songs - "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" by Skip James
and "I Am the Light of the World" by Reverend Gary
Davis. Engineered by Shawn Pierce and mastered by Greg Calbi, Tap
the Red Cane Whirlwind is released on True North Records
in Canada and Rykodisc in the rest of the world.
Poet of the Badlands
"When you listen to 'Tap the Red
Cane Whirlwind', the badlands of South Dakota come to mind:
scorched plains, tumble-down barns, and scrawny dogs lolling
aimlessly in the sun. Phelps is an man with lyricism deep
within his bones, a poet to rival Tom Waits and possibly
even Cohen and Dylan.
The musicianship can be rated just
as highly. Phelps's guitar playing is exquisite." - Red Popper (UK)
"On his last couple of albums, Kelly Joe Phelps had
moved from the solo work of his earlier efforts to fronting
studio bands. On this first live album of his career, Phelps
is back in a solo setting playing longer, extended versions
of songs like "Jericho" and "Fleashine" from
the band albums. As always, Phelps¹s guitar playing, rooted
in the styles of the old blues masters and tempered with a
jazz-like improvisatory imagination, hypnotically pulls the
listener deeply into his often-impressionistic lyrics. Phelps
also stretches out on long renditions of Skip James¹s
Hard Time Killin¹ Floor Blues and Reverend Gary Davis¹s
I Am the Light of the World that demonstrate his deep-from-the-well
understanding of traditional blues and gospel music." -
****1/2 -- Mike Regenstreif, The Montreal Gazette
Joe raised the musical bar with his compelling 2003 collection
of songs on his fourth full-length Rykodisc release, Slingshot
Professionals. Replete with Kelly Joe's singular guitar
sound, soulful vocals and lyrics won through experience, Slingshot
Professionals delivers music, at once both fresh and mature, ensuring
Phelps a place among our most accomplished performing songwriters.
Produced by Lee Townsend, Slingshot Professionals followed
2001's critically acclaimed Sky Like a Broken Clock and
the Beggar's Oil EP, a companion piece released in 2002.
Slingshot Professionals found Phelps making his way in a new role,
that of bandleader. For most of his career, Phelps has gone it
alone on record and on tour. That changed with the recording of Sky
Like a Broken Clock, when he paired with bassist Larry Taylor
and drummer Billy Conway (from Morphine).
Professionals, Phelps recorded with two distinct groups
of musicians, one in Seattle and the other in Toronto, creating
a sound that is his most fully orchestrated to date. Celebrated
guitarist Bill Frisell and Keith Lowe (bassist with David Sylvian,
Wayne Horvitz and Fiona Apple) joined Phelps to record "Not
So Far To Go" and "Cardboard Box of Batteries",
while three members of Zubot and Dawson - Steve Dawson (slide
guitars), Jesse Zubot (fiddle, mandolin), and Andrew Downing
(bass) play on Slingshot's remaining eight songs. Drummer and
percussionist Scott Amendola,(known for his work with Charlie
Hunter, among others) joined Phelps on all songs except one.
The contributions of Chris Gestrin (organ, piano and accordion)
and Petra Haden (backing vocals) were subsequently added in Vancouver,
B.C. Of his work with Zubot and Dawson, Phelps laughs as he says, "it
sounds like a bluegrass band that went to the wrong school."
The basic tracks on Slingshot Professionals were
recorded live, in Phelps' favorite manner. "My penchant
for live recording has to do with wanting the musicians to interact
with one another, to provide the opportunity of responding in
the moment to a lyric or a phrase someone might play. A 'call
and response' situation is created, all ears are open, and the
focus of all individual minds becomes the focus of one mind.
In this way the song starts to breathe and take on a life beyond
the players themselves, each part becoming a critical and important
link in one chain. This, to me, is when music comes alive."
A brilliant improviser, Phelps is known for
his ability to put a new spin on a song every time he plays. "For
me, the direction is always forward. I learn, experiment, experience,
apply. Everything I'm doing now is deeply rooted in what I've
done before, coupled with whatever sense of vision I've been
fortunate enough to receive. I no more want to play, sing or
write the way I did five years ago than want to live the life
I had then. I change, the music changes, but it's a very straight
line. It may appear to be a circle, but each individual recording
exemplifies my current musical passions and explorations added
to past influences and experience.
As life moves constantly forward, so should music, if it's to
contain vitality and genuine emotion respectfully relayed in an
honest fashion. Earlier on, I found myself absorbed by the sound
of the guitar, by it's inherent possibilities and myriad variations
of approach. These days my curiosity and passion are piqued by
words - the music they themselves make - how best to portray an
image musically, and song construction...how to build a song like
a painters' picture, with all its shadow and mystery and light.
Instruments added to the guitar become like different colors on
the pallet, or different accents on the words, or foreign languages
that sound so beautiful in and of themselves they communicate purely
through sound. In this way I am able to find a spot to set the
guitar into, a place the voice can rise into, and the other instruments
fill out the canvas, thereby setting up the foundation for the
story to exist upon. If we all play only what is needed, and no
more than that...there is the ultimate goal and challenge.
When I'm on the road, I can't write. However, I'm constantly soaking
up experiences, sights, collecting memories that come out when
I get back home and can sit still long enough to bring them forward
in a particular shape. Some of them come out in story form, others
in the form of poetry or loose prose. Then they are filed away;
not as songs but as written word only. I enjoy this part of the
writing process so much that I'll typically fill 40 or 50 pages
before even one of them starts to transform into song lyric.
When I catch a glimpse of a character or a story that appears
wants to be sung about I will start editing, start honing in on
the most important aspects. I start to recognize the extraneous
parts tapped out during the original sketch, begin to see a face...and
if I'm lucky these characters start to dictate their own motion
and turn themselves from a loosely constructed bit of prose into
a nearly carved lyric. An internal word rhythm or phrase rhythm
will usually stand out, leading me further along the editing path,
the re-writing path.
Somewhere along here is where the guitar
comes in. I try letting the word rhythm determine the musical
direction, rather than the other way around, so that the story
or the scene remains the point of the pyramid and all else remains
in support of that. The primary point is this: much of the music
will always remain improvised - this is where the outside emotion
will be heard. The music can and most likely will change with
every performance - that's the breath and the life and the vitality,
the soul. The lyric will always remain solidly built, this is
where the inner emotion will be felt. The fact that the lyric,
once it's finished, is not going to change highlights the importance
of its role."
Others talk about Kelly Joe:
Earle: "Kelly Joe Phelps plays, sings, and
writes the blues. HOLD UP before you lock that in - forget
about songs in a twelve bar three chord progression with a
two line repeat and answer rhyme structure - though he can
certainly do that when he wants to. I'm talking about a feeling,
a smoky, lonesome, painful - yet somehow comforting groove
that lets you know that you are not alone - even when you're
blue. Play on brother."
Bill Frisell: "I first became aware
of Kelly Joe Phelps when my daughter (who was 9 or 10 at the
time) brought home a cd ('Lead Me On') from the Vancouver Folk
Festival. "You might like this, Dad" she said.
Boy was she right. I've heard Kelly Joe mention that he's been
inspired by people like Roscoe Holcomb, Robert Pete Williams,
Dock Boggs, Mississipi Fred McDowell, and others. He seems
to have absorbed all this (and all kinds of other stuff as
well) and come back with something all his own. Sounds like
he's coming from the inside out. The bottom up. He's not just
playing 'AT' the music or trying to recreate or imitate something
that's happened in the past. He seems to have tapped into the
artery somehow. There's a lot going on in between and behind
the notes. Mystery. He's been an inspiration to me."
Tim O'Brien: "When
I heard Kelly Joe the first time, I was amazed how it all
made so much sense. His music is a wide world with three
hundred and sixty degrees of influence.... Kelly Joe is a
musical slight of hand master. He pulls world wide sounds
out of his guitar."
Songtone-produced CD's by Kelly Joe Phelps:
Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind (Rykodisc/True North, 2004)
Slingshot Professionals (Rykodisc, 2003)
For more information, please visit KellyJoePhelps.com.