Album: Kelly Joe Phelps

Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind, RYKODISC
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The Independent Culture

Over the course of half a dozen exquisite albums, Kelly Joe Phelps has established himself as one of the most natural heirs to the country-blues tradition of Robert Johnson, Skip James and Charlie Patton, his huge natural talent employed without a trace of artifice or archival inertia. In Phelps's hands, the old, hard world of the blues comes vividly alive again, its field-hands replaced by the sad, lonely outsiders commemorated in such touching manner in songs like "Tommy" and "Waiting for Marty", and its wandering hobos substituted for by the carnies and grifters adrift in a world they don't control in "Not So Far to Go". This live album features just his nimble fingerpicking and hickory-smoked groan on all original material, apart from the Rev Gary Davis's "I Am the Light of the World" and a leisurely but involving 10-minute version of Skip James' "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues". His own songs are full of striking, resonant images, such as "a mule with a razor and a swagger in his step", "trapeze float in a buttercup parade" and my favourite, "the last drag of patience on a celibate cigar", delivered in the kind of weatherbeaten tones that effortlessly evoke a sense of weariness and loss. The only drawback is that Phelps' style, sustained throughout on subtle melodies, can make it hard to differentiate tracks.

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