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What the Bones Are 

Kelly Joe Phelps likes to keep his performances simple

For more than a dozen years, Portland, Ore., singer-songwriter and slide-guitar ace Kelly Joe Phelps has been carefully crafting hauntingly beautiful albums--such as Shine Eyed Mister Zen, Sky Like a Broken Clock and Slingshot Professionals--infused with his unique take on American roots music. He writes songs of subtle wisdom and offbeat poetic lyrics.

He'll return to Tucson to play a concert with fellow slide-guitarist and singer Rory Block next Thursday, May 17, at the Berger Performing Arts Center. Phelps is on tour to promote his latest recording, the critically acclaimed Tunesmith Retrofit, which was released last summer on Rounder Records.

Phelps' music seems to originate from a timeworn, soulful place where several musical styles collide with the cutting edge. The astute listener easily can detect the influence of early Delta blues artists, Alan Lomax-era country and folk, a touch of bluegrass and even the jaunty spirit of early proto-jazz; but in Phelps' tunes, those styles are subtly recombined to create a new and entirely modern sound.

Influenced early on by such artists as Blind Willie McTell, Mississippi John Hurt, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Taj Mahal, Phelps would never presume to compare himself to those legends. But when gently pressed, he admits that assimilation is one of his goals.

"That's what I try to do and hope to do. That's important to do, because I absorb and use influences and examples. And that's what the people who I look up to did, too, whether it's Jimmy Page or Leo Kottke or Doc Watson. ... You take what came before you and try to build on it and move forward."

Phelps saw the release of his first album, Lead Me On, on Burnside Records in 1994. He followed that auspicious debut in 1997 with the remarkable Roll Away the Stone for Rykodisc, a label for which he continued recording until moving to Rounder for Tunesmith Retrofit.

The new album finds Phelps in a period of transition. Where his last studio CD, Slingshot Professionals, had featured a variety of guest artists and sometimes-crowded arrangements, Phelps has seen fit to get back to folk basics.

This is a result of listening to such pivotal folk-blues artists as Dave Van Ronk, Norman Black and the aforementioned Watson, he says. "It's stripped down compared to Slingshot. It's not as involved or overly thought out."

Born and raised in Sumner, Wash., a small town south of Seattle, Phelps is now 47. He grew up immersed in music, and learned folk and blues tunes from his dad, who played a little boogie-woogie piano and country-blues guitar around the house.

The younger Phelps learned drums, piano, guitar, banjo, harmonica and any other instrument he could get his hands on. And he continues to branch out--on his latest record, he plays a little melodica and pump organ, too.

"I grew up in a very musical family, so it was a natural thing for me to get into it. And because it wasn't a professional music setting, it didn't occur to me when I was young that's what some would do for a living. When I was young and played, it was just always a blast and a personal thing.

"I guess I started playing music when I was 10 or 11, I don't think I really thought about wanting to do it in a focused way until I was maybe 17 or 18. Even then, I just sort of saw it as just another option. By the time I was 20 or so, I figured, 'This makes the most sense to me, and it's what I like doing the best.'"

Around 1980, Phelps moved to Portland to pursue his musical aspirations.

He says Portland was a great town in which to grow as an artist and to pay some dues, although he never really felt as if he were enduring a poor existence.

"It never felt that way, to be honest. I just structured my lifestyle so that I could afford to get by with very little money. I sacrificed some things, I guess, but it never hurt. I, and a lot of my friends, we were doing the same thing, I suppose, to make ends meet, and we could rely on each other. Whoever had coffee, we'd be over there drinking it. Anyone who had gas drove."

Phelps also had no problem getting gigs, he says. "The other thing about Portland was that not only was it not so hard to live that way; there were lots of gigs, and lots of us were playing all the time. I don't know another city in the country where musicians can make a living playing without having to go out on the road."

A longtime fan of hard-bop and free jazz, Phelps also spent a large part of his musical apprenticeship playing that material, including the work of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman--so if you hear a little jazz in his sound, you're not mistaken.

"I spent a lot of time playing that music, not touring around or putting out CDs, just playing that music for a good 10 years in and around Portland."

As a result, improvisation plays an important part in his music, from composition to recording to performing live.

"When I compose something, I never work it out all the way. I figure out what the bones are, and that's enough for me. Then I try to breathe the life into it and flesh it out. In the studio and when I perform, a song still has the same foundations, but from one night to the next, or from one take to the next, it can be radically different."

When Phelps plays in Tucson, it'll be a solo gig, which is how he most often performs, and how he prefers it.

"That's where I am the most comfortable. (Playing solo) is less formal, more intimate. I do that by choice, because I love the simplicity, the subtlety."

Although Phelps will essentially open the show for Rory Block, it's more like a co-headlining gig. When June rolls around, Phelps will take off to open a month of dates for Lucinda Williams.

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