Kelly Joe Phelps Sings ‘The House Carpenter’

Kelly Joe Phelps Shine Eyed Master ZenListen to this track by Vancouver, Washington folk-blues journeyman Kelly Joe Phelps. It’s “The House Carpenter” as taken from Phelps’ 1999 record Shine Eyed Master Zen.

The song is a well-travelled British folk tune steeped in tragedy. There’s nothing like it for a great folk ballad from that tradition. And it doesn’t hurt for a blues tune, either. Because of Phelps’ command of the material, this rendition is potent, seeming to touch on both of those musical traditions all at once.

The song has its roots in Scotland, with the tale varying over the years as many, many folk musicians interpreted it over generations.  In some versions, the devil is a character, with the song also known as the more floridly titled “The Daemon Lover”. In earlier versions, the devil lures the house carpenter’s wife away from her home, and her child, with the promise of riches abroad. That’s a bit of a crossover into the world of the blues, too. The devil is a busy guy in many blues tunes from Skip James to Robert Johnson.

But In Phelps’ version the devil in his guise as a deal-cutting, saint-tempting figure of ultimate evil is nowhere in sight. There is a force more insidious at the heart of this version. Read more

Kelly Joe Phelps Sings His Song “Tommy”

Listen to this song by folk-blues guitarist and singer-songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps.  It’s “Tommy”, as featured on Phelps’ 2001 release Sky Like a Broken Clock.  For my money, it’s one of the saddest songs ever written, yet beautifully realized.

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This song is full of pathos, and what’s more is that Phelps playing and his voice, although excellent, seem almost secondary to the portrait it paints of the central character.  The folk music idiom is known for its tragic figures,  for characters who go their own way which often end up facing their doom down to bad choices.  Yet, here in Phelps’ tale, the central figure is not arrogant, or lazy, or cruel.  He is innocent; too innocent to live in a world where such a state of being isn’t allowed to thrive.

And because he is strange, for reasons of illness or developmental challenges, Tommy is isolated too.  So, the line ‘Tommy was a good man, and nobody knew’ is a summation of a worthy character, and possibly an indictment against a society that often lets the best of us go unnoticed, unappreciated, unloved.  So, it kills me every time I hear it.

For more information about Kelly Joe Phelps, check out the Kelly Joe Phelps Official Website.


Kelly Joe Phelps Performs ‘Plumb Line’ From His Album Tunesmith Retrofit

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.