Kelly Joe Phelps – Union Chapel (London, England)
Londoners know what we’re talking about, friends. Walk into Tower Records here at Piccadilly Circus and find two 25-deep rows of Townes Van Zandt discs. Gillian Welch’s section is stocked full. The entire catalogues of Uncle Tupelo and the current offshoots are represented.
A similar level of recognition can be expected for Kelly Joe Phelps, who is in London as a part of the annual Way Beyond Nashville celebration of Americana music. Top draws include performances by John Hiatt, Caitlin Cary and Emmylou Harris at various venues around the city, chiefly organized by promoters at renowned roots-music nightclub the Borderline.
The turnout is spectacular. When Phelps comes to my Denver home base, he fills the Soiled Dove, a 200-seat venue, though few are left outside wanting for a ticket. Tonight, though, he’s at this stunning antediluvian church with a capacity of about 700, and it’s stuffed with rabid devotees who are not only familiar with Phelps’ music but know it intimately enough to cheer enthusiastically for favorites at the opening chords.
Tonight’s two-hour set highlights Phelps’ jazz background as much as the blues proficiency that has established his reputation. With his trio — crack standup bassist Keith Lowe and the skilled, unpretentious Scott Amendola on drums — Phelps shows he’s as adept an improviser and bandleader as a guitarist and lyricist. Mouthing off-mike audibles and nodding to extend instrumental runs, he keeps the set list short for the concert’s length, but only because many offerings are stretched up to twice the length of album cuts. Most of the baker’s dozen are from his latest and strongest work, Slingshot Professionals, though Phelps also offers up a few unreleased songs.
“Tommy”, a moving story-song from 2001’s Sky Like A Broken Clock, touches home even more forcefully live with the ensemble supplying a haggard, teetering foundation, and “Knock Louder” evolves into a joyous blues stomp by its end. Twin peaks “Waiting For Marty” and “Not So Far To Go”, both exquisite tales of big-hearted losers that often inhabit Phelps’ songs, are the most well-received and stirring this evening, and the second of two single-song encores, “Clementine”, earns a standing ovation that lasts minutes. A fitting closer, it’s a bleak and chilly tale that, like Phelps, belongs to these damp, gray autumn London streets.