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On Lead Me On, that steady thumb-bass and deft picking, combined with Phelps' worn-and-torn growl, raised collective hairs. Combined with unconventional tunings and song structures, curious chord forms, weird improvisations, and personal, profound lyrics often centering on biblical allegory, Phelps didn't just seem emotionally invested in his material -- he sounded possessed by it. "I've Been Converted" and other traditionally gospel-bound blues standards mingled with originals like "Someone to Save Me" and "Marking Stone Blues," all point to some nebulous spirituality hinted at but never examined directly.
Roll Away the Stone (1997) was more of the same: restful on the surface but daunting underneath. Phelps didn't seem to need a partner or a band; the way his strings buzz and shudder on a frightening cover of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" is as harrowing as an unseen hand upon them. Stone's follow-up, 1999's Shine Eyed Mr. Zen, stands as the culmination of his original purist formula.
In the press bio for Slingshot Professionals, his newest album, Phelps claims, "I no more want to play, sing, or write the way I did five years ago than I want to lead the life I had then." To this end, he's largely abandoned the solo, straight-up bottleneck slide blues of his past to concentrate on ensemble work. His first recording in a band setting, 2001's Sky Like a Broken Clock, was recorded with bassist Larry Taylor (Tom Waits) and drummer Billy Conway (Morphine); the new disc features drummer Scott Amendola (Charlie Hunter), bassist Keith Lowe, guitarists Steve Dawson and Bill Frissell, keyboardist Chris Gestrin, and violinist Jesse Zubot, among others, making Professionals his most diverse outing yet. The record represents a remarkable change for the notorious loner.
"Right. That's just a natural evolution for me, musically experimenting," Phelps says. "And the writing has been changing and developing, which seems to have opened more possibilities for different sounds."
Initially, one familiar with Phelps' unadulterated solo songs may find Professionals' complexity off-putting. But many of the guest contributions are welcome additions: the glorious violin riff that roams in and out of "It's James Now" and the subdued backing vocals from Petra Hayden (daughter of renowned jazz bassist Charlie) on "Waiting for Marty," for example.
Nowadays, Phelps' "neck of the woods" is Portland, Oregon, a place he sees little of these days since he's on the road so much. Though his tours are rarely routed through South Florida, he makes a rare appearance in Lake Worth this week with Lowe and Amendola, after swinging through places as small as Rockford, Illinois, and Redwood City, California.
As he speaks, Phelps' voice dissipates into another elongated yawn. Today's a day to drive across the prairie, maybe read a Steinbeck novel, possibly stop and have a smoke and something to eat. He won't be resting for long, though. "No," he insists, "I'm a moving target, man."