Just about any fool who knows his way around a guitar can play the blues. I mean, mechanically play the blues. All you have to do is pick up a six-string, start hammering out that all-too-familiar 12-bar, three-chord progression, put some gravel in your voice and go off on something or someone that done you wrong. Co-opting the idiom is easy -- and there are musicians out there who have made a very comfortable living doing just that. Making it engaging and honest, however, is something else entirely. To do that, you've got to do more than merely mimic -- you've got to reach down into whatever corner of your guts you keep the good stuff -- the real stuff, the stuff that makes you who you are -- and spill it. You've got to internalize what you've learned, process it, then return to the world, with your influences and inspiration transmogrified into something new and valid and vibrant.

Singer/songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps knows a thing or two about the blues, both intellectually and emotionally. His technical expertise on the guitar is matched only by his capability -- and desire -- to create original songs that routinely challenge preconceived notions of what constitutes the blues. Find out just how fresh the blues can be this Saturday night when Kelly Joe Phelps stops off in Sandpoint for a very intimate dinner concert at Di Luna's Restaurant.

For Phelps -- who initially jumped into the fray in 1994 with his Burnside Records debut, Lead Me On -- the blues has never been about recreating, or even paying homage to, the past, so much as it's been about redefining the future. Yet he admits that his current musical passions and explorations arise from past influences and experience.

"For me, the direction is always forward," he says. "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."

He's also very bullish on live performances. His latest album, Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind (Rykodisc/True North Records), is a live solo outing that documents Phelps performing within the intimate environs of two of his favorite haunts, McCabe's in Santa Monica, Calif. and the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. For fans, it's pure, unadulterated Kelly Joe, in the setting he's probably best appreciated -- up-close and personal. And for those only now coming around to the Phelps phenomenon, it's a good place to start because so much of his best material is here, including originals like "Jericho," "Tommy," "Not So Far to Go," "Fleashine," "Cardboard Box of Batteries," "Gold Tooth" and "Waiting for Marty." It also contains a couple of killer covers -- Skip James' "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" and the Rev. Gary Davis's "I Am the Light of the World."

Yet even in a studio situation, Phelps is a big fan of doing it live. The basic tracks for his latest studio project, 2003's Slingshot Professionals, were done quickly, by a group of musicians all working, playing and feeding off each other.

"It has to do with wanting the musicians to interact with one another," he explains. "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 is when music comes alive."

"You Suck" -- Tired of local "battle of the bands" competitions characterized more by inflated expectations and swollen egos than by good times? If so, get set for a Spokane band contest that emphases fun over professionalism, style over substance and creativity over pretense. It's called "First for the Worst," it's coming this Friday to the Spike Underground and they want you, local bands, to join the fun.

"Gimme the mike? Gimme a break," exclaims Patrick Walsh, owner of the Spike coffeehouse. "You know it seems like there's just one too many 'best of' contests out there these days. There's BOBfest, the RAWK Final Four and now the Big Easy's Quest for the Best. Who really cares who's the 'best' anymore?"

That very question led to Walsh and his friend Jacob Stuivenga wondering: What's the worst band in Spokane? And like a light bulb frying its filament on too much current, a blinding flash of inspiration occurred. A new band competition -- the First for the Worst -- was born. Walsh says the response so far from local acts wanting to participate has been overwhelming. Ever heard of Crapman, Fevered Ego, Cat Piss or Rich Toppin's and Pastries for Love? Neither have we.

"We now have 15 bands signed up for the two-day event," he says of the shows he has scheduled for Friday, Feb. 4 and Friday, Feb. 25.

"The dates are no accident either -- we chose to kick off the contest one day following the Big Easy's Quest for the Best finals [on Feb. 3], so that all the bands that lost over there might have a chance to compete in our contest."

Feel like you've landed face down in Bizarro World? In a way, you have. Here's how this backward-ass competition works: Participating bands will have the chance to show off their lack of musical prowess by performing two songs each. All bands in the competition will be required to play behind (I'm not even kidding, here) a chicken wire barrier that will be erected around the Underground's stage. As an added attraction, beef jerky will be handed out to all audience members, who will then be encouraged to pelt the performing bands (semi-protected by the chicken wire) with the preserved meat. A panel made up of local journalists, booking agents, musicians and other so-called "music experts" will sit in judgment over the clamor and decide the winners, or, in this case, the losers. Prizes for first, second and third place will be presented to the three worst bands.

"Everything with this contest is in reverse," says Walsh. "The first-place winner gets the worst prize, and the lowest score wins. Let's face it -- there are a lot of really, really bad bands out there on the Spokane music scene. But these bands never have a chance to play at many of the 'best of' contests, which basically feed the already over-inflated musicians' egos. I love the Spokane music scene, but this is one contest that isn't going to be open to 'good bands.' Actually, if a band starts sounding too good up there, the judges are going to gong them off the stage using garbage can lids. And if they don't stop playing, the judges will have the right to invoke the 'You're Too Good for This Contest' clause and simply pull the plug."

Walsh hopes that the contest will draw out local performers who might otherwise be a little too insecure about their musical skills to give live performance a crack. What the hell, you know? This is Spokane, after all -- a place where even the most creative and polished bands have to play for peanuts and where there's maybe one chance in a zillion that any of them will ever be "discovered" by a big name A & amp;R rep. So what's left? Well, to have fun, stupid. And the First for the Worst competition is sure to have that in buckets. Plus, with the bar set this low, aspiring musicians -- no matter how much they may bite -- will have no reason to fear rejection. That's because here, rejection is the goal.

So if you have a band that sucks -- really sucks -- you need to get your sucky backside down to the Spike coffeehouse ASAP and sign up for this all-city suck-fest before time runs out. Because if you missed out, uh, that would suck.

Publication date: 1/27/05

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