by Sheri Boggs
It's not very often that an artist included in The Inlander's "Top Ten CDs of the Year" comes through town, but that's exactly what's taking place this Friday when Kelly Joe Phelps sets up camp in the Panida. Last winter, our Editorial Art Coordinator, Amy Sinisterra picked Sky Like a Broken Clock as her No. 1 CD of the year. She wrote that Phelps has "a voice like rich creamery butter" and is able to play the slide guitar "like he was born with one secured to his thighs." It turns out, she's not alone in that assessment.
"He doesn't have the name recognition quite yet in terms of the mainstream," explains Michael Bogue, whose Mountain Fever company is bringing Phelps to town. "But people who like the blues already know about him. I just talked to the Panida, and they're getting a lot of calls, some from a long ways away."
Phelps was born to a musical family and grew up 40 miles south of Seattle in Sumner, listening to such jazz standards as Miles Davis and John Coltrane. As he got older, he turned to American folk and delta blues, parlaying his since-the-age-of-eight piano skills into guitar, drum and bass. He absorbed the auditory teachings of Mississippi Fred Dowell, Skip James and Robert Pete Williams. By the age of 17, he was doing live gigs backed by area jazz musicians. It wasn't long, of course, before he cut a record. Now he lives in Portland.
His first three albums, Lead Me On, Roll Away the Stone and Shine Eyed Mister Zen were in many ways the product of his near-legendary live shows. The lap-style acoustic guitar work that mesmerized audiences with his deft picking, sliding and drumming made its way onto the albums, as did his soulful, ragged vocals on both such traditional folk tunes as "Goodnight Irene" and "Fare Thee Well" and his own compositions. He signed on with Rykodisc after the strong response to his 1995 debut Lead Me On and has been quietly cultivating a grassroots following ever since. In addition to his own solo gigs, he has toured with Leo Kottke, B.B. King, Keb' Mo and Little Feat.
If folks hadn't yet discovered the smoky longing of Phelps' voice or his considerable skill with lap-style acoustic guitar, chances are his 2001 release Sky Like a Broken Clock edged him further into the folk/blues musical consciousness. Joined by Tom Waits' bassist Larry Taylor and Morphine drummer Billy Conway, Phelps didn't set out to make a departure from his earlier work so much as he hoped to fine tune his new direction.
"Up until now, I think I allowed myself to develop an approach to music that I couldn't have had I not spent that much time playing solo," he writes on his Web site. "But over the last year, it became apparent to me that my development was starting to happen more compositionally than as a performer."
Initially, he wasn't sure he wanted to include drum and bass on the new record, but he found himself pleased with the results: "It came out a thousand times better and stronger than we expected it to. I spent so many years developing this approach; I didn't want to change it, and in the end I didn't have to, because everybody around the project was of the same mind."
Like the writer Nelson Algren, whom he cites as one of his strongest influences, Phelps can outline the bleakest of circumstances or reveal one character's fortitude with only a few spare, elegant lines. "Clementine" is a prostitute's sad lullaby, while "Beggar's Oil" has touches of the medieval ballad with such intriguing lyrics as "A doubter's cusp, a braggart's pyre/Sweltering in brandy-mire." Recorded in only one or two takes, his words are punctuated by the sound of feet shuffling and the occasional muffled beat, lending the album an indelible immediacy. In addition to bass and drum, the unmistakable tones of a Hammond organ and the deep resonance of a cello can be heard.
"There's a real haunting sound to his music," agrees Bogue. "It's pretty distinctive."
While Phelps is already "really big" in Montana, and also -- strangely -- in the UK, Bogue says he hasn't really played much in the North Idaho and Eastern Washington neck of the woods.
"The Panida is perfect for his kind of act," he says. "It's a great, intimate space for someone who's building a following like he is."