Kelly Joe Phelps, Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry

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The Independent Culture

Kelly Joe Phelps used to bring two guitars with him on tour and play one of them with a bottleneck, laid out on his lap.

Kelly Joe Phelps used to bring two guitars with him on tour and play one of them with a bottleneck, laid out on his lap. But in the last few years, this troubadour from Portland, Oregon, has cut back to a single conventionally held acoustic, strumming and picking like a more linear singer-songwriter. In the early years there was an unpredictable feel to his country blues and folk-gospel amalgam. He'd waver lightly, shifting metre and uniting voice and strings in an extremely personal shifting form.

Phelps has been a prolific recording artist for Rykodisc and a regular visitor to these shores, and it seems that constant touring has straightened out his kinks, allowing him to form the habits of a more conventional performer.

Paul Curreri plays a supporting set, and it's almost as though he's taken on Kelly Joe's old mantle, playing unpredictably, altering his phrasing, twisting guitar parts and shuffling rhythmic patterns. Curreri endears by rambling on obsessively about being turned back from the UK by an immovable official over a delayed work permit that would have arrived two hours later. Fifteen hundred dollars and a transatlantic round-trip later, he finally touches down in England, probably hell-bent on revenge.

Curreri is an able storyteller who weaves his narratives into song form, employing a country blues vocabulary that springs straight out of the Sixties folk revival. His words sound at once spontaneous and poetic, and his routines haven't yet been hammered into a regular shape. Phelps produced one of Curreri's two albums, and both were selling well in the interval, the audience clearly won over by his goofy charm.

Kelly Joe Phelps still picks out involved guitar lines and sings in a dusky drawl. Strings and vocal chords are entwined as one, both servants of his convoluted songs. With each tour, his mind becomes increasingly abstract - here he cracks dry witticisms, cultivating a distracted, mumbling vagueness, talking about his wardrobe of 37 flannel work shirts. He's a blues eccentric, turning that well-worn song form into a vehicle for individuality.

There's not much to look at as Phelps sits centre-stage on his chair, scissoring his legs in and out and wobbling his knees together. The real interest lies in each song's lyrical content. Phelps has a winning way with words and images, dropping in unlikely couplets, and gliding syllables together for sheer sound's sake. His recent live album, Tap The Red Cane Whirlwind, continues his penchant for elaborate titles.

The main downside of this performance is his tendency to play for too long, particularly considering Curreri's support. Around ninety minutes are dedicated to his single-minded style, and the audience eventually tires of his floating sound, despite the sensitivity of his delivery. His recent adventures with a band have shaken up his musical concept, but the new album finds Phelps back in a completely solo setting. He's now in need of another new direction, something that will shake off the embedded patterns of familiarity.

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