During a recent telephone interview, expert guitarist and songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps sounded relaxed and, more surprisingly, awake—considering it was before noon on a Saturday.
“I didn’t play last night. I’ve been home for a week,” he said. “I don’t usually get this much time off from touring.”
Phelps lives near Portland, Ore., and spends much of his time on the road, “tossing a few guitars in the back” of his Subaru Forester and driving solo to gigs throughout the country. His live performances conjure a cross between Tom Waits, Leo Kottke and B.B. King, and are usually met with bated silence as he delivers dramatic slide or dizzying finger-picking guitar while singing his densely imagined songs with smoky, understated vocals. His latest album, this year’s Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind, is his first live recording.
“For me, it’s kind of like chasing a rooster,” says Phelps of his solo performances. “What I look forward to is trying to perform with as little planned as needed, trying to approach the songs like a skeleton and fleshing them out as I’m playing them.”
Phelps first gained recognition for his 1994 release Lead Me On, a stripped-down blues album that highlights his guitar playing; there’s no accompaniment aside from his own lap-style six- and 12-string slide guitar and conventional six-string acoustic.
By the time he released Sky Like a Broken Clock in 2001, Phelps was becoming just as recognized for his songwriting as for his guitar work. For example, on Clock’s “Fleashine” he sings: “A fleashine shoeshine man of fifteen, floating into the next town/Puts a straw in a Jim Beam bottle, and lays his head down.”
“Not everything I write ends up in a song,” says Phelps. “I’ll write in loose prose or poetry just for the sake of writing, and only sometimes can I whittle a song from that.”
Phelps doesn’t write when he’s on tour, so his occasional breaks from shows are valuable opportunities to get his thoughts on paper. When he’s on the road, Phelps focuses on keeping his songs fresh for every audience.
“If I can experience a song new every time I play it, that’s the goal,” he says. “I think I’ve been touring long enough that my repeat customers expect it different each time. It’s not because I’m bored, but that’s what playing music should be about.”
Kelly Joe Phelps plays Parkside at the Wilma Friday, Sept. 16, at 8 PM. Tom Catmull opens. $15.