Mister Zen 

The shine eyed slide master Kelly Joe Phelps

Bear with me on this one, people, for I have a theory to test.

The theory: When it comes to musicians, the number of names used by the artist is directly proportionate to the quality and/or integrity of their work. I am excluding painters for the obvious reason that such fellows as Monet, Cézanne, Klimt and Picasso kicked serious ass (also, I don’t think Klimt would’ve snubbed you if you saw him on the street and yelled “Hey, Gustav! What do you think of your sublime The Kiss being used as the namesake and cover image of Danielle Steele’s new book?”).

Pudding bowl number one (i.e. proof): Madonna. Shakira. Britney. Eminem. Aaliyah. Brandy. Cher. Pink. Sting. They all suck. OK, maybe Sting doesn’t suck per se, but his self-importance and pretension (key characteristics for one-namers) pretty much overwhelm his talent. And yes, there are exceptions. Beck, for instance, is one badass musician/singer/songwriter. But you get the point.

Pudding bowl number two: Mary Chapin Carpenter. Jerry Lee Lewis. John Paul Jones. Ludwig van Beethoven. John Lee Hooker. All fine examples of musicians who rule their genres. Notable exceptions: David Lee Roth. And didn’t Meredith Baxter Birney put out a Christmas album?

So when you hear that a guy named Kelly Joe Phelps is coming to town, you think, Hmmm, the guy needs three names to express the scope of his artistry? Must be worth checking out…

Phelps is a guitar virtuoso who has endeared himself to industry insiders and a core of fanatic admirers alike through his crisp work on the fretboard, a continually evolving vocal style, and lyricism that is at once straightforward and pleasantly evocative.

Now in his early 40s, Phelps is a child of the Pacific Northwest who cut his teeth playing piano and then guitar in jazz combos, with free-thinkers like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman as guiding lights. Roughly a dozen years ago, Phelps broke both the jazz and combo molds and set off on his own as a country-blues player under the creative inspiration of genre masters like Robert Pete Williams and Mississippi Fred McDowell (note the tri- name dynamic).

After several highly regarded solo releases, Phelps broke onto the scene in a big way with 1999’s Shine Eyed Mister Zen, an astonishing collection of original and traditional numbers showcasing his blistering slide work, intricate finger-picking, and a voice as smoky as Texas pulled pork. Mister Zen was followed by 2001’s Sky Like a Broken Clock (the man sure can pick album titles), a rare session with backing musicians that included members of Tom Waits’ band and Morphine. A companion EP to Broken Clock, called Beggar’s Oil, was released earlier this year.

A self-described loner who eschews set lists and concrete song arrangements, Phelps invokes the sound and feel of such luminaries as Greg Brown, Waits, Leo Kottke and even Bruce Cockburn. At the same time, he has sculpted a sound completely his own, defined by a signature ability to harness the raw power of slide guitar and turn it into a mesmerizing foundation upon which to rest his plaintive voice. The result is that rarest of animals: a solo performer who not only commands your attention but demands it as well, who arrests every musical molecule in the room and forces it to his bidding.

An indication of the experience awaiting Phelps’ Missoula audience at the Elks Club can be found on the last song of Beggar’s Oil, a live recording of the traditional separation lament “Lass of Loch Royale (If I Prove False to Thee).” Punctuated by the steady pulse of a simple bass line, Phelps’ slide playing soars with a heartbreaking, gentle beauty. When his voice rises to falsetto near the end of the song, it’s like listening to a musical sunset.

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