I know that for some of you reading this, the name Kelly Joe Phelps will be completely unfamiliar. That is a personal failing on my part. I’ve played his music for many of you but probably not all. I apologise. Allow me to make this introduction for you.
Everyone, meet Kelly Joe. He is a brilliant musician and someone you should know about. I first heard about him through Acoustic Guitar magazine around 15 years ago. At the time, I just heard that he was a lap-slide guitarist who played blues and I paid little attention – I just wasn’t interested in blues of any sort at the time (that’s another story). But about a year later I saw that he was playing the Vancouver Folk Festival and I decided to check him out. I found some of his music online and the first thing I heard was this:
Needless to say, I was impressed by the quality of the music as well as the subject matter of many of his songs and I started buying records and concert tickets. Fortunately, he lives in the Pacific Northwest and so was in Vancouver about once a year. Over the years, his style transformed from instrumental virtuosity to a more song-oriented direction and the slide guitar disappeared to be replaced by a very accomplished fingerpicking technique. His lyric writing became very evocative and he started playing with other musicians who added greater depth and texture to his songs. Next he recorded a solo instrumental record filled with stellar playing but which confused his record company; they seemed to think it was unmarketable. On that note, they may have had a point since some of the songs are rather challenging listening and hint at his background playing bass in Seattle’s free jazz scene. But, as I said, the playing is amazing and the effort is well worth it. Finally, he formed a duet with singer/rhythm guitarist Corinne West for which he mostly played guitar and sang harmony vocals.
So I was intrigued a few weeks ago to find that Kelly Joe had released a new record late in the summer. I obviously like some of his records more than others but his work is always of a very high level and worthy of attention. I was not quite prepared for what I heard: slide guitar and gospel-blues… but with a bit of a difference. The slide guitar was not lap-style but rather bottleneck – a new development for him. The gospel-blues, however, was the big surprise; there was something…else going on here. He had recorded and even written gospel-based songs before on his early records but, as amazing as those songs are, they sounded like he was adopting a style. These new songs sound like they’re his. So I did a little research and found out that he has recently come to faith in Jesus Christ.
Kelly Joe’s website, www.kellyjoephelps.net, includes not only lyrics to the new songs but also the Bible verses on which he’d been reflecting as he wrote them (oddly, those quotations are all from the King James version). It’s obvious that he has been doing a fair amount of prayer and study and he says as much in some of his interviews. Some of the writers aren’t sure quite what to make of this new direction and at least one writer states that whatever these new songs mean, they’re not speaking about a religious conversion! But whatever people do think about faith in Jesus, they are unanimous in praising Phelps for his astounding musicality.
So go and listen to this record. Check out a new-to-you artist and, for some of you, a new brother. And until you get a chance to hear the whole thing, enjoy this: