Mr Zen Remains Seated
Watching Kelly Joe Phelps is an exhilarating, sometimes nerve-racking experience. As he squirms and leans from his seat, eyes closed, you wonder if he'll end up on the stage in a mash of strings and broken guitar. Fortunately, he never does. Similarly, when taking dexterous and labyrinthine solos which stretch beyond blues and folk forms you have to wait and see if he'll find his way back to the song. And amazingly he does. I saw him deliver such a solo, edge of seat performance in Liverpool's ancient Neptune Theatre recently.
He has a way of taking the blues and traditional song forms, re-shaping them to suit his own idiosyncratic lyrics and emerging somewhat like Tom Waits in collision with John Martyn and Bert Jansch. His version of ´Hard Time Killing Floor' showed him and the guitar seemingly going off in different directions and meeting up again in a free form version of the old blues. His ´Tommy', which could be character out of Waits' own back catalogue of misfits, was given a fairly straight forward narrative treatment with a few lyrical quirks thrown in to keep it weird.
I'd hoped for a few more songs from ´Shine-Eyed Mr Zen' ┐ ´Katy' or ´River Rat Jimmy' maybe ┐ but he was promoting ´Sky Like A Broken Clock' and the new companion e.p. ´Beggar's Oil'. So the only ´Mr Zen' contribution was ´Capman Bootman'. Fair enough.
Live versions of ´Taylor John', ´Clementine' and ´Beggar's Oil' surpassed those on the cd and were all superb examples of the interplay between voice and his lightning slide and finger-picking. Air guitarists in the crowd craned their necks particularly to catch his slide work but it had usually been and gone before they could spot what he was doing. And he plays the thing across his knees which must make it harder to check those tunings he is so fond of changing. Part of his gruff and surreal patter between songs mocks his need to re-tune after almost every piece. He jokes that he can't afford a guitar tech but I reckon he likes to keep the guys ┐ and it is almost entirely guys ┐ guessing.
One track from ´Beggar's Oil' that showcased the liquid slide was the traditional ´Lass Of Loch Royale' and on the e.p. you can get an authentic ´live' taster. His voice slips easily from the smoky growl to an effortless falsetto and the guitar embellishes and underpins it all. Other unreleased tracks are ´Don Quixote's Windmill' and the lurching menace of ´Frankenstein Party OF Three : Your Table Is Ready' where his voice dives deep and comes up with ´I'll sup and dine with Frankenstein'. When I first heard it I thought he said ´I'll serpentine with Frankenstein' which sounds even better and would probably be in keeping with his lyrical leanings. Catch him while he's still solo.
© Paul Donnelly 2002