Review and photograph by M.R. Poulopoulos
The first time I heard Kelly Joe Phelps (KJP), I had to put down my fork and walk over to the computer to find out just what in the hell Pandora Internet Radio was playing. I was literally moved. Had I a fork in front of me during Phelps’ Tuesday night performance at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, it would have sat still on the table, and the meal gone cold. The man’s solo performance captivated, despite the occasional chatter scattered amongst the 60 or so people in attendance – not nearly a full room for the joint, but pretty good for a Tuesday.
Switching between an open-tuned steel National resonator and a standard-tuned Martin D-35 Johnny Cash Commemorative, Phelps became a river through which flowed blues, spiritual, country and gospel music, all of them caught up in soulful currents; at times a torrent of notes ran across a bluesy minor scale, and at others an inspirational and slow-moving cascade of vocals descended from the source of all major rivers.
KJP is known for his boundless imagination while playing as well as his constant reinterpretation of his own and traditional tunes. Dressed simply in jeans, with a sport coat and a brim-up fedora, he stayed true to that approach by opening smooth and slow with “River Rat Jimmy,” an up-tempo tune from 1999’s Shine Eyed Mister Zen (Rykodisc Records). His take on Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Don’t Never Change” rumbled like distant thunder approaching on a summer breeze, and Eric Clapton couldn’t stand next to Phelps’ haunting rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Hell Hound On My Trail.” Occasionally, KJP’s tattoos would slip out beyond the lengths of his coat cuffs. He wore no rings on his fingers, which, from what I
gather, is unusual.
The instrumental “Spit Me Outta the Whale” from KJP’s new album, Brother Sinner & the Whale (Black Hen Music, 2012), immediately brought to mind Leo Kottke in how he interspersed playful melodic segments with cerebral chord changes played with bottleneck brass slide and finger-picked notes. The alternating bass line remained steady throughout. Phelps took a similar approach in his second-set instrumental, “Brother Pilgrim” (also off Brother Sinner…), but he added a bit more of what I can only call the “Phelps flourish” to the composition – he knows how to take his time bringing the music back to resolution.
The whole of the new songs he introduced from Brother Sinner & the Whale have a decidedly Christian theme (nothing new to Phelps’ catalogue), despite the album title’s Old Testament reference to Jonah, with “Hope in the Lord to Provide,” and “Down to the Praying Ground” being the most obvious in name. The hardships and realities of humanity were not lost in, nor coated over by these religious references, however. He dug deep into sorrow and hurt during “Hard Time They Never Go Away.” His face looked and his vocals sounded pained during the lines, “With heartache and sadness that look to be my friends / How I’d like to kill them both and start all over again” and “Through a million miles of walking / and a million things to say / I can’t cut closer to the bone / Hard times they never go away.” He was playing the blues from a deep well of experience, you could feel him feel it; it was a mighty powerful sensation accompanied by driving fingerpicking and a vocal performance that would force the Devil to tip his hat.
He balanced the sinner’s sorrow with joyous and buoyant melodic gospel numbers, including “Goodbye to Sorrow,” in which Phelps lifted his spirit to sing out, “In the eyes of the Lord / I am redeemed” and “In the word of the Lord / I have a home.” His performance and songs never hovered between, but consistently explored the reaches of wayward error, loss and redemption, swinging the crowd with him from high to low and back. Brilliant versatility in deft hands.
The only palpable disappointment of the evening came towards the second set’s end, in which the Iron Horse wait-staff divvied up bills and collected payments. Phelps, a gracious and attentive player, focused in on and engaged listeners through his performance; he had no schtick. The audience’s rustling around their pockets and purses for cards and cash added to the murmur over tip amounts and seemed to disconnect KJP from the source of “Pilgrim’s Reach.” There was a clear disconnect between he and the audience when he started picking out Doc Boggs’ “Country Blues,” which, judging by YouTube, is a trusted stand-by.
To finish out the second set, however, Phelps lured the audience back in with a sweet and longing portrayal of Hank Williams’ “Singing Waterfall,” a song Phelps described as “obscure.” It certainly worked, as many in the crowd whispered “yes” and hummed their approval at the end of the song. And when KJP put his guitar down on the stage, the audience stood to clap, calling him back to the stage for one more. He didn’t even make it out of the room. After telling the audience that he fell into a room full of nice people, he then laid down a moving and foot-tapping version of the lead track off of Brother Sinner…, “Talkin’ to Jehova.” It’s that ability to move the listener that caused me to drop my fork a few months back, and then pressed me to stand as he left the stage for the night.
KELLY JOE PHELPS SET LIST
River Rat Jimmy
Hard Time They Never Go Away
Sometimes A Drifter
God Don’t Never Change (Blind Willie Johnson)
Spit Me Outta The Whale (Instrumental)
Goodbye To Sorrow
Hellhound On My Trail (Robert Johnson)
Hope In The Lord To Provide
Down To The Praying Ground
Brother Pilgrim (Instrumental)
Country Blues (Doc Boggs)
Singing Waterfall (Hank Williams / Fred Rose)
Talkin’ To Jehova
NOTE: Scheduled opener Mirel Wagner cancelled.