Kelly Joe Phelps: Don’t Stop the Process
Posted 5/23/2013

Guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps has re-examined his faith and taught himself to play bottleneck slide. Both processes have been inspiring experiences that reveal themselves on his 10th recording as a leader, the solo album Brother Sinner And The Whale (Black Hen Music).

Phelps, who first made his mark playing free-jazz in the Pacific Northwest during the 1980s, eventually became known in folk and roots music circles for his lap slide playing. But he set the instrument aside nearly 10 years ago in favor of his Martin acoustic. He started wanting to play slide again around the same time he was preparing to go into the studio with producer Steve Dawson last year. But once Phelps picked it up, he encountered the same obstacles that led him to set it down in the first place.

“I decided, why don’t I just try to play bottleneck?” Phelps recalled, on the day of his solo performance at the 2012 Montreal Jazz Festival. “So I sat in my basement and played for 10, 12, 14 hours a day. I realized early in the process that if I worked hard enough at the bottleneck, I could do all the same-sounding stuff as the lap style. And being able to use my left-hand fingers outside of the slide to fret notes, that’s going to completely erase the limitation on note choices, chord choices, voice-leading things, contrapuntal stuff.”

As he went to work on new material, Phelps found himself writing old-school-style gospel tunes. He had been studying the Bible much more closely in recent years but had no intention to record a gospel album.

“I said to Steve, ‘It looks like I’m on my way to making a gospel record—is that the right thing to be doing? And he said, ‘Don’t stop the process, just go after it.’ So I didn’t, and he was right. When I stayed in that direction, the ideas kept coming.” With song titles like “I’ve Been Converted” and “The Holy Spirit Flood,” the CD builds on all of Phelps’ lyrical, compositional and technical strengths.

Brother Sinner And The Whale presents a whole new sound for Phelps, who developed his bottleneck technique using a bronze slide.

“It’s quite heavy, which makes it a little harder to control,” he said. “But the prize for working that out is a really nice round, dark tone. The slide feels heavy and fat, and the note produced by it feels the same way, which I absolutely love.”

Ed Enright


Kelly Joe Phelps (Photo: James Rexroad)

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