Pop: True blues to the core

IF HE never does anything else as profound as the album that first brought him to British critical attention - 1997's starkly beautiful Roll Away the Stone - the Kelly Joe Phelps story is already down in the annals: a 37-year-old from Washington State who spent most of his teens and twenties playing jazz and teaching guitar before he had a road-to- Damascus experience with the blues. He completely relearnt his instrument, now playing, most unusually, with an open-tuned acoustic horizontal on his lap, learnt a load of pre-war stuff and set off on a worldwide mission. For the next couple of weeks he's in Britain.

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.

Colin Harper

South Shields Custom House tomorrow; The Junction, Cambridge, Thurs