Kelly Joe Phelps's music distils experience down to its essence, and his latest release, Shine Eyed Mister Zen, is a masterpiece of slide guitar blues.
Phelps manages to combine the wailing desperation of blues musician Robert Johnson with the lyrical sensitivity of musician Nick Drake. Like music legend Ben Harper, he plays the guitar with it laying flat in his lap. Unlike anyone, he occasionally bangs his head on the microphone when a kick-drum sound is needed.
Phelps is also a gifted lyricist. His words are abstract and profound, full of striking imagery. Shine Eyed Mister Zen takes its name from a verse in his song "River Rat Jimmy," which is about spending childhood summer days on the muddy banks of a river.
"Shouting revelation out a boyman child of 10 / Never looking up to heaven it was heaven there and then / We wrapped our bloody fingers like a shine-eyed mister zen / River Rat Jimmy and Jehoshaphat .."
According to Phelps's Web site, he grew up in small farming town in Western Washington. Everyone in his family played music, and he began his career as a drummer when he was in the fifth grade. A few years later, his father gave him a guitar.
Phelps explored rock 'n' roll but moved on quickly once he was exposed to players like Chet Atkins and Bert Jansch. His discovery of Miles Davis led to an obsession with jazz, and he became a jazz bassist who drifted into the avante-garde music scene, which led to his explorations of improvisational "free jazz."
Phelps made a sudden turn back to the guitar and American blues and studied Mississipi Fred McDowell and Blind Willie Johnson without losing his basis in improvisation.
He taught himself to sing while playing in cafes for tips and meals. Several hundred gigs later, he was signed by Burnside Records, which released his debut Lead Me On. In 1997, he signed with Rykodisc and quickly gained an international reputation.
Phelps will play Friday at the Outpost Performance Space, 210 Yale Blvd. S.E. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $15 for general admission and $13 for Outpost members. Advance tickets are available at The Book Stop, 3410 Central Ave. S.E. For information, call the Outpost Performance Space at 268-0044.
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