As a tunesmith, Kelly Joe Phelps already has a proven track record, with a catalogue of original songs infused with what The Washington Post calls “poignancy, passion and spirituality.” But on his sixth studio album, the Portland, Oregon-based musician still felt the need to retrofit new elements into his songwriting. “Part of it is shifting focus, away from music heavily driven by guitar to music that’s more driven by the song,” explains Phelps. “The record is stripped back in relation to the last two studio efforts, balancing combinations of solo, duo, trio and quartet and bridging the gap between my early solo recordings and later band outings.”
'Tunesmith Retrofit' offers a dozen compositional gems that show Phelps at the peak of his songwriting powers, tackling engaging story songs and soul-baring ballads with equal aplomb. Although his musical foundation remains country-blues and folk music, there’s nothing traditional or predictable about Phelps’ lyrical approach, which features distinctive images and refreshing turns of phrase. In the gentle ballad “Spanish Hands,” he describes a lover variously as “a gentle bell…a cat eye” and “a gold breath on a wire.” And the moody “Loud as Ears” paints a vivid portrait of a couple at odds with each other: “he’ll nod off and she will sing/he won’t dream while she won’t sew.”
Beyond the rich wordplay, Phelps latest album serves up several musical surprises, including the first original instrumentals he’s ever recorded. “MacDougal” is a spirited ragtime homage to folk legend Dave Van Ronk, who was known as the Mayor of Greenwich Village’s MacDougal Street. The other two tracks showcase instruments never featured before on Phelps’ albums. The carnival-like title track finds him playing the plaintive melodica, while “Scapegoat” has him picking a lightning-fast banjo, an instrument that Phelps abandoned at the age of 25. When a recent conversation with his girlfriend reminded him of his early love of the banjo, he rushed out that day and bought himself one. “I started sawing away and all these tunes just flowed,” recalls Phelps. “A month later, I bought another one.”
Phelps’ renewed passion for the banjo also figures in the driving “Handful of Arrows,” his tribute to Chris Whitley, the acclaimed blues/rock guitarist who died last year. “Show them your hands,” Phelps sings, “Hit ’em with that old, steel gun.” Like the late Whitley, Phelps was a revered slide guitarist. Acoustic Guitar once raved that Phelps “left behind a trail of guitarists with wide eyes, shaking heads and jaws bruised from hitting the floor.” Also a fan of literary figures ranging from Ray Bradbury to Wallace Stevens, Phelps’ lyrics are integral to his music vision. “I’m always trying to identify parts that could use improving,” he once said, “and figuring out what it might take to accomplish that.”
'Tunesmith Retrofit,' his Rounder Records debut, is the latest step in the evolution of a consummate artist. Phelps launched his recording career in his early 30s, after immersing himself in Miles Davis, John Coltrane and free improvisation and then discovering the blues of Skip James, Robert Pete Williams and Mississippi Fred McDowell. His first three albums, 'Lead Me On,' 'Roll Away the Stone' and 'Shine Eyed Mister Zen,' featured just Phelps on guitar and vocals, performing a mix of traditional and original songs. With 2001’s 'Sky Like a Broken Clock,' he moved to strictly original compositions, adding bassist Larry Taylor (Canned Heat, Tom Waits) and drummer Billy Conway (Morphine). Slingshot Professionals, another album of all-Phelps material, added renowned guitarist Bill Frisell and three Canadian musicians: slide guitarist Steve Dawson, fiddler-mandolinist Jesse Zubot and keyboardist Chris Gestrin.
The talents of Dawson, Zubot, and Gestrin show up again on 'Tunesmith Retrofit.' Zubot’s fiddle solo imbues the mellifluous opener, “Crow’s Nest,” a song about being open and honest, with an unmistakable warmth. Dawson lends a haunting tremolo weissenborn and pedal steel to “Spanish Hands,” while Gestrin provides organ to “The Anvil” and an eerie melodica to “Big Shakey.” Phelps’ music comes alive thanks to masterful musicianship and superb songwriting. Nowhere is that more apparent than on 'Tunesmith Retrofit,' an album of musical depth and poetic charm that seems destined to bring this gifted artist the larger audience he deserves.
Other 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, Mississippi 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."