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During a downtown blues festival in a Midwestern city, Kelly Joe Phelps is giving an afternoon performance. The summertime breeze is absent, replaced by a furnace-blast of superheated desert dryness imported from Phoenix. There's no shade at all; the outdoor concert is held on the blacktop of an elementary school's grounds. Looking completely enervated, Phelps sweats while he seems practically ready to melt into his guitar. The air's so hot it shimmies as it rises from the asphalt past the red-brick school into the cloudless sky. Phelps, in jeans, workboots, a red-checked shirt, and porkpie hat, holds his guitar on his lap as if it were a recalcitrant child ready to squirm away. The heat seems ready to cauterize him, but Phelps -- head bowed, mumbling something about his final resting place and where he wants to go when he dies -- shivers as if a crow were crossing his grave. For a minute, it feels as chilling as a frozen February night.
"I remember that crazy thing!" Phelps says when reminded of that afternoon, already eight years gone. "A dumb idea is what that was about! Sure was hot in that parking lot."
That's an atypically loquacious retort from Phelps, still lying in bed this morning in a Best Western in Janesville, Wisconsin. It's not even 9 in the morning yet, and Phelps -- who played a show last night and has a lot of driving to do today -- sounds rumpled and bleary. Much of Phelps' roadwork takes place in Europe, where he's in demand as a well-known and well-respected ambassador of Americana. England, Ireland, Holland, Italy, France, and Sweden have become regular stops.
"They focus more on [American roots music] and take it less for granted," he says, "whereas it seems to be in the shadows a bit more here."
Phelps began his career with a purity of sound and vision as raw as the tailings from a mine, but refined, polished, perfect. Lead Me On, his 1994 debut, consists only of his burnished slide guitar, heavy-lidded half-speed baritone, and a "stomp-box."
"That was kind of a goofy idea," he explains. "Back then, I used to carry around this wine box and put my left foot up on it, so the neck of the guitar was level. But it got to be dead weight after a while, so I stopped carrying it. But I used to kinda click and clack on it with my foot, just to make some noise. But my picking technique has changed a lot since then. Most of the rhythmic stuff you hear on Lead Me On is actually my right hand on top of the guitar rather than on the box. For whatever reason, I don't smack the guitar as much as I used to, because I beat up a couple of 'em. It's not really healthy for a guitar."
His initial style of fingerpicking blew listeners away -- even the Edge has taken notice -- due to its fascinating, faultless technique. But before adapting the slow burn of acoustic blues, Phelps was all about playing fast -- developing a studious style influenced by the modern math-jazz of Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton. That brush with intellectualism didn't lead Phelps further down the path of difficult playing but closer to the traditional delta blues of Robert Pete Williams. By traveling way, way out before swinging back to the center of it all, Phelps can claim he's been to at least one pole, like an explorer. As he grew to understand his instrument inside and out, he became aware he didn't have to play fast or loose with its vocabulary to get his point across.
To hear Phelps tell it, however, his playing isn't that special. "My dad got me started when I was about 12, I guess," he says with a yawn. "He showed me what he knew, and some friends at school showed me what they knew, and I just started piecing it all together."
As a songwriter, Phelps tells stories -- studded with details like the smell of boiled coffee, a light bulb on a back porch, a pack of Camel Lights, a cardboard box of batteries hidden in a tire swing -- that revolve around "small-town living, certainly," he says. "Just because I grew up in one. I grew up in Summer, Washington, which is south of Seattle and east of Tacoma, butted up against the first part of the rise toward Mt. Rainier. I was born in '59, and my parents listened to a lot of country-western in the '60s, people like Ernest Tubbs, Buck Owens, Hank Williams. I have a sister, five years older, and I listened to her Beatles records."
Unlike Ben Harper, whose populist, rock-inflamed slide-guitar magic has won him a deep and wide audience, Phelps' clientele is merely deep. His work reaches levels that Tab Benoit or Anders Osborne and their technically laudable but hollow efforts will never plumb. Phelps -- quiet, well-read, and oddly funny in a dry, self-deprecating way -- doesn't make excuses for his virtuosity or keep it obscured. He's even released how-to DVDs revealing his fingerpicking and slide techniques.
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."