A singer needs the shakes like the crowd needs a bicycle

Nick Coleman
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The Independent Culture

The American singer-songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps has been through the phases. He's wrestled with expansive, jazzily expressionistic folk-blues; he's topped his folk-blues with an elegant art-pop ferrule; he's played with a cellist, Tom Waits's double-bassist and Bill Frisell; he's hewn at the hydra of poetic American song like a hero. You might say that he is the American John Martyn, without the arsiness. Yet he hasn't got where he ought to have done, given his talent.

Last weekend he got to the Arts Theatre in Covent Garden. His eighth album Tunesmith Retrofit, his first for Rounder, finds him going back to basics: solitary roots music aureoled with poetic lingo. The tunes are shapely, the picking astonishing, the language literary. The urge to narrate is in him like a muddy river.

"There are some that blindly and happily plough/While the tractor screams 'Feed me some oil'/The scraping of gears and the gnashing of teeth/Fall soft on full-ahead ears." So begins the lovely "The Anvil", a song which appears to be about the griefs of creativity. On the other hand, it might be about agricultural machinery or love. It's hard to tell. This is partly because Phelps's songs are elusively poetic, but it's also because of the way he sings them. His songs are really hard to hear. He has a soft, slightly steamed-up voice and, because he has his astonishing fingers to attend to while he sings, what the songs have to say often gets lost in the rush of the music. Sometimes you just can't hear sense for all the whorling and rippling.

Listening is a bit like fishing. Sometimes you come up with something - a word, a phrase, an old bicycle - but once it's out of its proper environment it loses all its beauty and you want to chuck it straight back in.

Phelps is an engaging presence. T-shirted, jeaned and centre-parted, he sat in his dim spotlight and bridged the gap with his audience as if casting into a quiet stream. He tipped his titfer to Woody Guthrie, Chris Whitley and Dave Van Ronk.

"That one was called 'Big Shaky'," he declared after his opening number. "I called it that because 'Big Shaky' is a fun thing to say..."

As he played, his legs, feet and ankles flexed. His left foot stomped, his right foot wiped, his knees went in and out, his ankles did figures of eight. He's setting himself up nicely for some middle-aged ligament trouble, one thought. Wonder if he sees a physio? Or an osteopath?... And then the mind snapped back to the job in hand. Ah, another lovely hymnodic melody, some more fantastic picking. Wonder what he's going on about?