Here’s a clip of understated master blues ‘n’ folk guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps with ‘Plumb Line’, a track off of his newest record, Tunesmith Retrofit, which was recorded right here in Vancouver, BC (where Phelps often plays live solo shows, especially at Capilano College where I last saw him…). The record was co-produced by Vancouver-based Steve Dawson, who knows a few things about roots music himself, being a fellow performer.

I first heard of Kelly Joe Phelps when living in England, and regularly reading MOJO magazine. I was looking for roots music in the blues tradition which is older and more stripped down than the electrified, 12-bar blues I’d already heard. I wanted to hear something that brought out the textures which are hinted at in Robert Johnson and Skip James records. I like dusty, crackly records too, of course. But, I was looking for something contemporary that struck a balance between earthy grit, and delicate, pristine playing.

On the strength of a review, I picked up Phelps’ 1999 album, Shine Eyed Mister Zen which soon became one of my favourite albums of all time. I just love the songs – with the storytelling tragedies as found in early country and folk musics, plus with the visceral punch of blues. And his voice – kind of like James Taylors’ voice as left at the bottom of an ashtray – pulled me in too, full of pathos and wounded beauty. What’s not to like?

Kelly Joe Phelps; taking American roots music and making it his own.
Kelly Joe Phelps; taking American roots music and making it his own.

Phleps is an incredible talent, one of those guys who is able to make a record of songs that sound downright ancient, even though they’re his originals. It’s hard, I imagine, to find one’s own voice within a form that is of indeterminable age, avoiding the trap of imitation. Yet while Phelps plays in the styles of legendary figures like Doc Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt, and others who wrote and played in the same vein over half a century ago, the songs and his superlative playing come across on their own strength. He’s an artist who plays the blues, conjuring up dust bowls and killing floors with ease, while remaining to be a singular voice that isn’t shackled by the limitations of what the genre might impose on someone of lesser skill.

For more music, check out the Kelly Joe Phelps MySpace page.



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