BIOGRAPHY | DISCOGRAPHY

"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 Guide

"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 Post

"His cadence is so hypnotizing, his rough voice so evocative, his guitar work so deeply entwined with his singing." - Boston Phoenix

"...textured, pure, noble and moving. Call it art." - Pulse!


The 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

 

Kelly 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).

For Slingshot 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:

Steve 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.