Tunesmith Retrofit

Written on Oct 5, 2008 at 9:58 AM

Last night I had the great pleasure of opening up for a guy whose music has been a constant source of pleasure and nourishment over the past six years or so. I was first introduced to Kelly Joe Phelps by my good man Patrick Porter back when we were in a band in Seattle. Patrick was so taken with Phelps’ music- then in the later stages of his now apparently permanent transition from lap steel wizardry and interpretation of traditional material to a more conventional, but wholly original, singer/songwriter mode- that he took the whole band and our wives and girlfriends to see his concert at theEMP Skychurch as a Christmas gift. My main memory of that show is of feeling like I was being punched in the gut repeatedly. I was vowing in my head to throw my guitar in the fireplace as soon as I got home. Phelps was amazing. Better than amazing- he was inspiring. I ran out to the car as the last note of the show faded and immediately started scribbling lyrics and musical ideas into my notebook.

At the time I had been doing anything I could think of to not be a singer/songwriter/acoustic guitar guy, driving my bandmates crazy in the process. The format seemed outdated and boring, and didn’t seem to match up with any of the music I was then devouring and finding inspiration from (BjorkRadioheadSigur Ros, lots of hip hop etc). I assumed the key to my artistic destiny was going to be shedding the acoustic guitar and moving toward more adventurous forms of composition and performance. Although I’m proud of much the work that came from this period of experimentation, I had it wrong insofar as my immediate future was concerned. Phelps clearly demonstrated that there was plenty of adventure waiting in the acoustic guitar and at the typewriter- I just had to get over myself and get on with it.

The combination of that concert and a pair of records Phelps released in the early 2000′s- Sky Like a Broken Clock and Slingshot Professionals had a pretty tremendous effect on the way I thought of ‘Singer/Songwriter’ as title and vocation. I was forced to reassess my trajectory. Here was an artist who was seemingly unrestricted and unfettered by anything but the unspoken rule that every note be true, emotionally authentic, and inspired. In short time I’d be out on my own performing solo, re-embracing the acoustic guitar, writing prolifically with it, releasing solo records full of it, and not feeling embarrassed or encumbered by it, and that feeling I got from the show at the EMP and from those records was a contributing catalyst for the shift.

I’m happy to report that, as of last night in Portland, this guy is simply peerless on the stage and he’s still a lightning rod for inspiration when the guitar’s in his hands. His style has evolved further, and he seems to have had his interest in reinterpreting traditional material revived. These were some of the most affecting numbers of the night. It was terrific to see him play again after all these years. To boot, he’s a wonderfully warm and genuine guy, and I really enjoyed getting to chat with him before the show.
The audience was great, and the sound was fantastic. The Aladdin Theater is a beautiful venue, and the staff there was classy and accommodating as could be (thanks to Mark for the booking, Nick for taking care of us, and Paul for the magnificent sound). I played a mix of new and old stuff and had a great time on stage. Jared Woods, my duo partner for the next few weeks, is here and there’s lots of rehearsing to be done before we head out of town on Wednesday morning. After a bit of a break, I’m feeling reinvigorated and excited to be playing music again. I’m hoping last night’s great show marks the beginning of another new chapter.

Aladdin Theater setlist
My Home is You
Floater
Let it Out
Floodwaters
Lazarus
Avalon
Atlas
Sweetness
To Feel Your Faith Again