With a gently self-assured voice and a guitar style like quiet water, Kelly Joe Phelps does imbue his music with a certain Zen-like quality. There's something quite meditative about Shine Eyed Mister Zen, especially on the... more » song "River Rat Jimmy," which evokes a contemplative mood. --Genevieve Williams« less
With a gently self-assured voice and a guitar style like quiet water, Kelly Joe Phelps does imbue his music with a certain Zen-like quality. There's something quite meditative about Shine Eyed Mister Zen, especially on the song "River Rat Jimmy," which evokes a contemplative mood. --Genevieve Williams
"Compliments of my parents, I grew up listening to delta and country blues-- Robert Johnson, Son House, Charley Patton, Bukka White, well, you get the point. As the years went by, I found myself less and less interested in pure blues. Look at the greats-- half of Blind Willie Johnson's songs have exactly the same melody, and he wasn't even the worst offender. Formulaic lyrics and repetitive song structures just didn't do it for me anymore. I turned to jazz, blues-influenced folk such as John Fahey, and the occasional blues-based rock of modern geniuses like Chris Whitley and Ben Harper, and jam bands like Widespread Panic and the Allman Brothers. Until a few days ago, the only pure blues that held my attention came from the odd-balls like Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. Then I heard Kelly Joe Phelps-- this album in particular. OK, so he's only one man, but he writes and plays with such soul and technical skill, and more importantly, originality that I no longer believe the form to be a lost cause. Unlike Corey Harris or Ben Harper (mentioned by another reviewer), Phelps does not attempt to simply infuse his blues with cajun and occasionally carribean sounds (like Harris), or infuse rock with folk, blues and reggae (like Harper, one of my personal favorites) in order to revamp the blues. Phelps just plays the blues. However, the difference between Phelps and someone like Dave Van Ronk (part of the 60's blues revival) is that Phelps writes songs with complex structure, melodies and rhythms rather than just rehashing Robert Johnson. Like Chris Whitley on 'Dirt Floor,' Phelps shows that the form is not a lost cause. There is still room for creativity in the blues."
For fans of Leo Kottke and John Fahey
Rob Damm | 06/11/2000
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Phelps' guitar work is unspeakably lyrical. He mixes a primitive-American finger-style with fierce blues scales and burbling folk passages. He is one of the few contemporary folk musicians who doesn't seem to dwell in the shadow of his influences; instead, he seems to have entirely digested and mastered them. A testament to this is the way the covers and originals on this lovely record flow into each other. His take on the Dock Boggs' favorite "Country Blues" is alive, fresh and completely Phelps' own. The major addition to this record is the strong presence of original songs, which are, without exception accomplished, plain-spoken and very effective. The music is the star of the show here, not just an excuse for Phelps to show off his awe-inspiring guitar chops. The recording is very immediate, detailed and natural. Phelps' warm and weary voice sounds very intimate and you can appreciate every nuance of his phrasing. Easily one of the best of 1999, and maybe Phelps' best record yet."
A true master
Rob Damm | 03/13/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Kelly Joe Phelps seems now to be getting the recognition he deserves. When you first hear this music, you will be convinced that Phelps is either accompanied or the music overdubbed. Not so. His technical ability is truly remarkable, picking and sliding at the same time, but this is not at the core of his work. The technical brilliance is overshadowed by this being one of the most emotionally intense albums I have heard. Songs like "The House Carpenter" and "River Rat Jimmy" are chilling - this is the perfect music to listen to when you are alone at 3am. One thing that you cannot understand about KJP from his recordings is quite how great an improviser he is. Neverplays the same song the same way twice, and has even been known to improvise new songs on the spur of the moment. DO NOT let that put you off buying the album - I think that only "The Soft Bulletin" by The Flaming Lips can equal it as best album of 1999. But do make sure that next time KJP is near you you make sure to see him live; it is almost a life-changing experience as his six strings and his superb, somewhat slide-like voice make you realise that true originals and innovative, fresh music can still come out of "traditional" genres. For now, just order this album, and if you can, his others too. I would start here though; "Shine Eyed Mister Zen" is just extraordinary."
This record actually deserves 6 stars
Riley A. Vann | Morristown, NJ USA | 10/13/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"For the longest time now, I've given up on the blues as a developing, growing field of music. It is extremely easy to play the blues badly, very difficult to do it well. And until I heard Kelly Joe Phelps live, I'd thought absolutely impossible to actually be an innovator in the field of blues. Hadn't it all already been done as well as it could be done? Well, listen to any of the songs above and you'll see what this man has been able to do for the blues. Perhaps most amazingly of all, not only does he make blues classics seem at once fresh but also as ancient as the hills, but he writes new tunes which fit seemlessly into the long tradition of blues songs. From his amazing acoustic guitar playing (it escapes description with words) to his lyrics to his voice (which also escape description). And as good as his records are, his live performances are not to be missed. Find out where he is playing and go there immediately."
Excellent! Truly wonderful music!
Riley A. Vann | 08/23/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Playing lap slide and acoustic guitar, and with a unique, earthy vocal delivery, Phelps most closely compares to Ben Harper. Yet, he is in every sense his own artist, breathing new life into each measure of music on this CD. With incredible skill as a musician and songwriter, Phelps opens up the possibilities available to roots musicians in nearly every genre. In much the same way that Corey Harris' new CD pushes the boundaries of blues, folk, and other stlyes, Phelps is helping to redefine and update a form of music that has too often been simply rehashed. Anyone who wants to know what amazing things can still be done with a single guitar and a voice need go no further than this record."