Kelly Joe Phelps, Majestic Theater, Corvallis, Oregon, USA, (September 26, 2003)

Kelly Joe Phelps once again wove his bluesy spell on this unseasonally warm night in September. With a small audience of perhaps 100 or so, due to last-minute promotion and poor scheduling of the event on one of the busiest weekends of the year, Phelps amply rewarded the faithful fans who turned out.

We weren't expecting an opening act, but one had been added at the last minute. Happily, it turned out to be the Missoula, Montana-based singer-songwriter John Floridis, who did just what an opener is supposed to do: act as an appetizer for the main course. Floridis bounced onto the stage wearing shorts, t-shirt and Birkenstock sandals, looking like a thirty-something guy who'd been pulled from a backyard cookout and thrust into the spotlight. Thirty seconds into his first number, however, he dispelled any notions of amateurism: Floridis is a master at Kottke-style fingerpicked guitar, to which he adds his own very percussive and ornate stylings. He plays almost a clawhammer-style on the downstroke, giving his songs a strong sense of rhythm. His hands are all over the instrument; tapping, tickling and strumming the strings from the bridge to the top of the neck, playing it almost like a harp one moment, like a bongo drum the next. Floridis has an understated vocal style, and his songs were mostly typical folk fare, but his instrumental prowess clearly won over the crowd.

After a short break during which quite a few Floridis CDs were sold, Kelly Joe Phelps took to the smallish stage. He looked more well-fed than on any of the previous three times I've seen him, and he's still shy with the audience, even though he no longer hides under the bill of a cap when he plays. Phelps doesn't interact with the audience much, and he doesn't play from a setlist. What you get is the man, his guitar, his smoky voice and his tapping feet, and it's always enough.

Phelps, a former jazz bassist, has increased the complexity and depth of his guitar music with each album. His Ryko debut, Roll Away the Stone, leaned heavily on gospel influences. Its follow-up, 1999's excellent Shine Eyed Mister Zen, explored delta blues like "Dock Boggs Country Blues" and traditional folk like Lead Belly's "Goodnight Irene" and the trad "House Carpenter," and added a number of strong self-compositions, particularly "River Rat Jimmy" and "Capman Bootman." After two almost entirely solo albums, Sky Like a Broken Clock enlisted a blues trio, and his latest outing, Slingshot Professionals, includes a full band and a host of guest musicians and ventures further into jazz territory.

Phelps opened with two from Mister Zen,"River Rat Jimmy" and the haunting "Katy," and a deconstructed version of "Capman" came mid-set. But the night focused on numbers from Slingshot Professionals. Even though he was playing solo, his arrangements delved deep into the jazz side of the blues, with lots of free-flowing improvisation. The influence of Northwest jazz guitarist Bill Frissell, who guests on the album, was evident especially on the wistfully nostalgic "Cardboard Box of Batteries."

On "Jericho," the setting was Appalachian, and "Knock Louder" was jazzy folk, backed by a deep delta blues lick. He did one encore, the touching "Waiting for Marty," and the lights came up on a 90-minute set that went far too quickly.

[Gary Whitehouse]

You can listen to samples from Phelps' latest album at his Web site.