Opening the tour in Belfast, his performance is highly courteous to the crowd on one hand and simply enraptured with the music on the other.
"Hi, I'm Kelly Joe, this is what I do," he says, lurching into a scorching 10-minute take on the traditional Appalachian song "House Carpenter". Embodying a level of musical brinkmanship rarely seen on stages this side of Jimi Hendrix and The Who in their heyday, Phelps's performance showed the kind of benchmark he was setting for the next two hours.
Showcasing material from his new album, Shine Eyed Mister Zen (out on Rykodisc, 12 July), there is a marked shift from the intoxicating solemnity of Roll Away the Stone towards what he calls a "twisted folk thing": reference points being the modern Celtic fingerstyle acrobatics of Martin Simpson, the Sixties modal intensity of Bert Jansch, and touches of John Fahey weirdness. The new album, like his current show, is a brave departure from the record that made his reputation, but is recognisably the work of the same man. There may be more notes and a lighter feel to the material, but there's nobody else travelling this road with such a singular vision.
South Shields Custom House tomorrow; The Junction, Cambridge, Thurs