KELLY JOE PHELPS –
BROTHER SINNER & THE WHALE
2012 – Black Hen Music
This tremendous guitarist, singer and songwriter is usually placed under the Blues or Americana umbrella but on this excellent album he blends these with a little folksy sensibility and even at times a jazziness, into what is
predominately a Gospel album. The sound is very sparse, with just Kelly’s warm, expressive vocals and incredible guitar playing on this mellow of sound but powerful in content recording. He has long ploughed his own musical furrow, never being guided by commerce, always producing music that he is comfortable
with and whilst steeped in tradition, has a nice feel of originality. His guitar playing is often compared to the late great John Fahey’s, a comparison that Kelly is flattered by but with his degree of guitar playing virtuosity it is a more than justifiable comparison. Of course Kelly also has a pleasant singing voice and a laid back style which probably endears him to the average fan more than Fahey’s style ever did.
On this recording there are ten vocal tracks and two instrumentals, with many of the lyrics being inspired by the Old Testaments ‘Book of Jonah’ and all written by Kelly Joe. Despite being a predominately ‘gospel album’ there is nothing preachy about the lyrics, perhaps more of an emphasis on what he feels are the strengths of religion but without being overtly ‘religious.’ Any potential listeners seeing the album described as ‘gospel’shouldn’t be put off by thinking they are going to hear a gospel choir supporting Kelly Joe on a lot of hymns! This is far from the reality, although there is a feeling of being incredibly passionate and committed to the subject matter, but also with a feeling of reflection and summing up of his lifes path.
This is an album that despite it’s themes possesses great musicality thanks to Kelly’s masterly
blending of his virtuosic guitar playing with powerful songs and excellent vocals, with voice and guitar allowing each other plenty of space so that if you wish you can concentrate on either or both. This should apply to all albums but often doesn’t, but on this recording it certainly does thanks to the superb production by Steve Dawson.
The two tremendous instrumentals are Spit me outta the Whale, a quite spectacular piece of playing on which the Fahey comparisons are most obvious and album closer, the just as good Brother
Pilgrim. In the case of the vocals, all of the songs are skillfully written, sung and played with most being around the same tempo. Goodbye to Sorrow is a lovely gospel song about redemption, whilst Hope in the Lord to provide has a bluesy/jazzy feel with some beautiful slide guitar playing. I’ve been converted has probably the most overtly religious lyrics on the album but played and sung as a passionate blues song that would have impressed the great Blind Willie McTell.
An album with lyrical content such as this is likely to attract few new fans but existing fans may well think this is a return to form by this highly skilled and original artist and some may even think it’s his best yet!