Kelly Joe Phelps has been punching through the boundaries of who he is supposed to be with every album. I first knew him as the religiously inclined, prodigious country blues guitarist of 1996's Roll Away the Stone, itself a progression from his jazz beginnings. The three albums since have thrown up personal, modern blues songwriting, then a turn into something uncategorisable: literary songs of hurt played in a tight but improvised spirit by a top-notch band. It's a right-angled career turn typical of two musicians Phelps loves, Miles Davis and Bob Dylan, and of Phelps' own questing, wrestling approach to musical and spiritual questions that made even his "purest" blues more than pastiche.
This 43-year-old native of a rural backwater of Washington State has also built a formidable reputation as a solo performer. But it's here that the most radical alterations have occurred. Every time I've seen him previously, he has taken the stage in a trawlerman's woollen hat, and howled, slapped and clawed at his slide guitar, pouring violent physical effort into a formidable impression of a bluesman. This time, the hat has gone, and with it the masks and props with which Phelps - a young white man, after all - first attempted blues. Instead, he has brought a drummer, Scott Amendola, and double-bassist, Keith Lowe, both from his new album, Slingshot Professionals. The relaxation this allows Phelps transforms him.
His guitar often settles for a light, loping accompaniment to Lowe, who can slap his bass with full, cheek-stinging back-lift, and Amendola, who whip-cracks his kit so hard a cymbal breaks. Phelps keeps rising, hunching and falling back to his stool, as if buffeted by the others, laughing, excited and lost in what's happening. Near the end, as they improvise a simple blues, the bass sawing, drums rolling and Phelps smacking his guitar's body and stuttering words, till the whole sound explodes into rock'n'roll, then settles back into another soft verse, you can see the potential of the music they're trying.
The problem with Phelps' newly expansive sound is the difficulty in following the words he's crafted with such care, as they sink into a larger musical language. It's when his trio is at its quietest, and you can hear how he concentrates on his breaking, breathy voice, that the night is at its best. Drums rustle, and despairing mood pieces like "Cardboard Box Mysteries" and the hobo suicide tribute "Tommy" (based on a friend of Phelps) roll by. Romanticising and sympathising with the drunken, low lives that are his subject, this humane lyricism is his secret trump card. The attentive crowd's roar signals approval of his latest switch.