Gig Seeker Pro


Band Folk


This band has not uploaded any videos
This band has not uploaded any videos


The best kept secret in music


"Play on brother"

"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." - Steve Earle

"There's a lot going on in between and behind the notes."

"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." - Bill Frisell


Kelly Joe Phelps has a wise right hand. When playing his lap-steel acoustic guitar at the Knitting Factory, he would sometimes anchor that hand by the pinky and pick, his thumb and three other fingers whirling across the strings. On other songs, he would hold three fingers still and get a steadier but equally swift flow of notes from his index finger and thumb. Occasionally that right hand would run free across the guitar's body, strumming lightly up the fretboard and down to the bottom of the strings.
All the while, Mr. Phelps's left hand was flying its own imaginative course, usually aboard a metal slide but sometimes lightly pressing notes into the fretboard or reaching to detune a string. The relationship between left and right hand determines Mr. Phelps's style, just as the meeting of left and right brain defines his songs.

The analytical side of this music links Delta blues with free jazz and jazz-folk, in compositions and arrangements as tied to the spacious melodicism of Joni Mitchell as to the well-grounded improvisations of blues masters like Mississippi Fred McDowell. The intuitive side contradicts all categories in performances that are never the same twice. Mr. Phelps may have growled and moaned like a postage-stamp bluesman in his performance last Wednesday, but his croon also invoked the light phrasing of Paul Simon; his playing may have echoed heroes like Bukka White, but it also rode on vapors of Bach and Mr. Phelps's fellow American experimentalist Bill Frisell.

Mr. Phelps connects to the blues as poetry; his own lyrics, as in "River Rat Jimmy," the song that gave him the title to his latest album, "Shine Eyed Mister Zen," are highly metaphorical and as nonlinear as his playing.
Performing the folk standard "Black Waterside," he focused on the fairy tale language, his airy playing conjuring a pocket of supernatural space. On gospel songs, he manipulated his fretboard to create eerie harmonics as he slipped from a mumble to a falsetto, as if to follow the soul beyond the physical realm... - NEW YORK TIMES


Tunesmith Retrofit (Rounder, 2006)
Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind (Rykodisc/True North, 2004)
Slingshot Professionals (Rykodisc, 2003)
Beggar's Oil EP (Rykodisc, 2002)
Sky Like a Broken Clock (Rykodisc, 2001)
Shine Eyed Mister Zen (Rykodisc, 1999)
Roll Away the Stone (Rykodisc, 1997)
Lead Me On (Burnside, 1994)


Feeling a bit camera shy


Kelly Joe Phelp's 6th studio record, '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.” Kelly Joe 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.