Singer-guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps held a crowd of perhaps 500 spellbound for two hours, with his unique blend of folk, blues, gospel and jazz. Himself a capable writer of elliptical ballads, Phelps’ main strengths are his offbeat interpretations of folk and blues standards, and his otherworldly guitar playing.
This show was something of a homecoming for Phelps, who grew up in the Portland, Oregon-Vancouver, Washington area. It was a perfect night for this type of earthy, often melancholy music: the weather was just starting to turn from the longest, warmest Indian Summer in memory, to the kind of cool, damp fall the Pacific Northwest is better known for.
It’s hard to imagine a better venue for a performer like Kelly Joe Phelps. The Aladdin is a popular performance hall with players and audiences alike. It’s a converted movie theater that holds around 700 at peak capacity, and there isn’t a bad seat in the house. The sound is almost always exceptional, whether for a raucous show like the one turned in by the Richard Thompson Band earlier this fall, or a quiet but intense one like Phelps’.
Phelps has two critically acclaimed CDs on the Ryko label, 1997’s Roll Away the Stone and Shine Eyed Mister Zen from July 1999. It’s obvious that he has enough material for more recordings, because only about half of the songs he played at this gig came from his two Ryko CDs.
With no opening act, Phelps took his place with no fanfare. He sat on the lip of the stage, in front of the proscenium and its closed curtain. He was alone but for a plain wooden chair, a microphone, two monitor speakers and his two guitars. One he played across his lap with a slide, the other he finger-picked in a standard position.
He opened strongly with his take on the folk ballad “House Carpenter.” Within the first few bars, he was demonstrating the inventiveness that places him head and shoulders above most players in his field — in this case, tickling the strings on the frets with his right hand, above the slide in his left.
Throughout the evening, Phelps displayed similar bits of guitar wizardry, but it never seemed gratuitous or showy. His guitar licks always serve the song and its spirit, and sometimes help to lighten the mood of his darker blues numbers and ballads. His playing draws equally on the American blues picking school of John Fahey and Leo Kottke, as well as the jazzier side of folk exemplified by Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. Some classical and even flamenco motifs emerged at times.
If Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil so he could play the guitar, Kelly Joe Phelps must have mortgaged off his own, and those of his children and grandchildren for several generations to come. At various times, he used the slide and his picking fingers to create eerie harmonics; used his pinky finger to tap out a rhythmic counterpoint to the bass notes he plucked with his thumb; tapped on the guitar’s top to sustain a note being stretched by the slide; and executed a curious Roger Daltry-type windmill maneuver in which he played the strings in the normal place on the downstroke, and above the slide on the upstroke.
He frequently used the slide to make the guitar yelp, whistle and moan, all of which acted as counterpoint to his own vocal mannerisms.
“You can have so much fun with a guitar,” he mumbled after one particularly tricky move in which he plucked notes from the strings below the bridge. As he played, he closed his eyes and his body jerked and swayed with the music. During intricate fingerpicking sections, his head bobbed in a circle above the strings. Occasionally, one or both legs came off the floor and swung back and forth from the knees.
His voice is another instrument by itself, a smooth, smoky baritone which he occasionally lifts into a falsetto to good effect.
If I have one criticism, it’s of his minimal stage presence. Phelps appears to be quite shy and often at a loss for patter. He’s obviously aware of it, though, even joking at one point that he had spent a lot of time lately trying to think of what to do or say “when I’m not playing the guitar.” I would have appreciated a little background on some of the numbers, especially those not on his CDs. Those I did recognize included “Katy,” “Train Carried My Girl From Town,” and “Wandering Away,” as well as the single encore, “River Rat Jimmy,” all from Mister Zen.
The one number of the evening that evoked applause at its beginning was his marvelous interpretation of Lead Belly’s “Good Night Irene.” His interjection of “I wish I’d written this song” into the lyrics evoked laughter, but otherwise the house was silent as he wove his magic. In the end, it didn’t matter who wrote it. This was a moment of true folk music nirvana, the singer, the song and the listeners all one in melancholy bliss as he sang, “I wish I would never have seen your face, I wish I was never born.”