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Kelly Joe Phelps and the Blues


Carol Nelson Music Reviews

Roll Away The Stone....Kelly Joe Phelps

The Mississippi Delta …birthplace of a distinctly American form of music called ‘the blues’. It’s a far cry from there to Washington State, but the acoustic country blues born in the Delta is alive in the heart and mind of Pacific Northwest native, Kelly Joe Phelps, as evidenced by his latest album, Roll Away the Stone. Phelps was turned on to the acoustic country blues in 1989 through the music of such blues masters as Fred McDowell, Robert Pete Williams, Skip James, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

On Roll Away the Stone, Phelps, playing slide guitar flat on his lap in unique dobro style, pays homage to the old blues men by playing several traditional gospel-tinged blues numbers in addition to the Skip James tune "Cypress Grove" and a moving rendition of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s "See That My Grave is Kept Clean". But he is perhaps at his strongest on the 6 original Kelly Joe compositions, having a knack, it would seem, for writing songs that have a traditional blues or gospel feel. "Hosanna" is a fine example of a traditional-sounding KJP original, as well as a showcase for Phelps’ admirable guitar work. In Kelly Joe’s own words, he hopes his cd says to the public, “It’s honest and heartfelt emotion. I mean this stuff with every breath I take. You may or may not like it, but I sure meant it.” Even when he sings “of despondency and despair” (as he does more often than not.. it’s ‘the blues’, after all), “there is an underlying sense of hope”.

don’t you sing so quiet, no
I need a beacon to guide me through the night
O let me hear your hosanna
come on now and let me hear your prayer
Oh my heart is tattered and my spirit grows cold
let me see your wisdom Lord
before I get too old
Kelly Joe Phelps can coax heartachingly mournful sounds from his guitar on one song and have you clapping your hands for joy on another. Singing in his smooth baritone voice and occasionally tapping the side of his guitar, he shows how simple heartfelt words can evoke deep emotion, as on "Without the Light", one of the more powerful songs on the album, but also one of the sparest.
where my sorrow goes
there I’ll be
water runs up through my door
and washes me clean
of my childhood
dirt on the floor
a reminder
Roll Away the Stone is honest, intimate, spiritual. Kelly Joe Phelps brings the music from deep within himself and the blues tradition lives on.

For more information about Kelly Joe Phelps, try Mongrel Music or Kelly Joe Phelps

Copyright © 1997 by Carol Nelson, All rights reserved

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