Down home, masterful country blues. You can't touch this dude. KJP is capable of playing and writing in such a way that it's literally difficult to find one's way, and the listener just has to sit back in wonder. But this disc I found very navigable, hence pleasing in a different way. It's always great, just different flavors. The artist leads us to believe that he's moving away in this record from guitar driven composition to an approach that's song serving. Sure, I'd like to know the rest of the story. We'll see if we can rustle up an interview.
The banjo sounds fantastic, especially with the rhythm section on the tune for Chris Whitley, "Handful of Arrows". Neither clawhammer nor bluegrass, it's a fingerstyle banjo that's funky and fluid, pure KJP. There's also a smoking banjo instrumental with a great title, "Scapegoat."
A handful of maestros familiar from other recordings contribute with brilliance. Keith Lowe on acoustic bass and John Raham on drums understand completely how to get under and behind this guy's groove. Jesse Zubot on fiddle and Steve Dawson on pedal steel and tremolo Weissenborn shine, as always. Chris Gestrin glues things together with wurlitzer and pump organ, piano and a little melodica. The artist plays good melodica himself, notably on the closer, the telling "Tunesmith Retrofit."
Retrofit, indeed. Kelly Joe started out as a jazz experimenter, and wound his way around to country blues, even folk. That's a road less traveled for you. As a lyricist, he can be as non-linear and dense as Malcolm Holcombe sometimes writes, but here he's infinitely more approachable. It's perhaps fitting and good timing for his Rounder Records debut, and should grow his audience.
Another tribute on the record is a tune for Dave Van Ronk, cast in the giant's style, "MacDougal," where they named a street after him. I like to walk that Village neighborhood when I'm in the city, where all the greats hung out and played for tips. This artist is one of the new torch bearers. Most highly recommended.
our interview with Kelly Joe Phelps
a Dave Van Ronk site (unofficial, appropriately)