A Healthy Return 

Kelly Joe Phelps returns that “emotional investment,” with interest

Fans react strongly to Kelly Joe Phelps. They make a hell of what you’d call, in the current soft-touch parlance, an “emotional investment” in his music. They date events in the natural histories of their broken hearts around the cosmogonic events of his three albums: Lead Me On when we got together, Roll Away the Stone when we fell apart, Shine Eyed Mister Zen when I could finally breathe again. They translate his lyrics into Dutch and read them at funerals. They liken the occasion of their first time hearing him to something between an epiphany and those old ads for Maxell tape—jaw dropped, hair blown back, unable to move for the sheer force of what was coming out of their speakers. The first time they see him live, they talk about starting to believe in God.

Not bad for just one guy and the Gibson steel-string dreadnought that he plays flat in his lap, eh, reader? Kelly Joe Phelps counts fans in Steve Earle, Bill Frisell and the Edge out of U2, all of whom talk about the blues that run out of the man like he’s a wellhead on an underground river coursing with the rain that fell on the dinosaurs and seeped into the black limestone for millions of years before flowing out again.

There is indeed a hushed intensity to Phelps’s lyrics, the glowing embers beneath his voice and his quietly spectacular slide guitar playing. Which is why a lot of his fans are on tenterhooks this summer in anticipation of Sky Like a Broken Clock, his first album with a full band backing him up. Slated for a July release, the album’s 10 tracks were recorded live—no overdubs—over a week in February with Larry Taylor (ex-Canned Heat; also plays with the Tom Waits band) on bass and Billy Conway (of Boston cult figures Morphine) on drums.

For the fans, it’s been a long two years since Shine Eyed. In the interval, Phelps has made guitar and/or vocal appearances on new releases by Rory Block and Son Volt frontman Jay Farrar. He also contributed a rendition of “Black Waterside” to People on the Highway, a tribute album honoring resurgent folk-guitar hero Bert Jansch. Nice tide-me-overs for gushy Phelps fans, whose appetite for a new album now seems whetted to a knife’s edge.

Phelps’s people sound justifiably excited about the new album. A hint of trepidation is detectable in some of the fan postings on his website, but fans are always like that. So he’s added bass and drums. It’s not like he’s playing with the London Philharmonic.

Kelly Joe Phelps plays this Friday at the Blue Heron, 9 PM. Tickets $11 advance, $13 at the door.

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