Kelly Joe Phelps. Brother Sinner & The Whale

Kelly Joe Phelps is one of the premier acoustic blues guitarists of the last decade or so with a brace of albums featuring his lap steel playing and refreshing the traditions of the Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and even John Fahey. His latest album Brother Sinner & the Whale sees him continue in this fashion however here he plays bottleneck acoustic guitar and the songs stem from what appears to be have been a period of spiritual reawakening for him. Whatever crisis has caused him to reflect and embrace a Christian approach is neither here nor there but it’s led him to record these 12 songs which are steeped in the gospel blues tradition and in the main relate to the biblical tale of Jonah and the Whale. The tale of a prophet, Jonah, who initially spurns god and is thrown into the sea only to be saved inside the belly of a whale and then goes about god’s business may be a metaphor for Phelps’ own journey, certainly he appears to have wholly embraced the concept with several pages on his website detailing the lyrics to this album and the biblical quotations corresponding to each song. That’s not to say that this is an album to be relegated to the “spiritual” section of record stores. Phelps is indeed carrying on the tradition of incorporating religion into his music, a tradition as old and as wide as the Mississippi and as such the music can be enjoyed and appreciated in a secular sense much as one would listen to old spirituals, the Staple Singers or even Mr. Dylan’s born again albums.
As for the music Phelps is a wizard guitar player and the album is chock-full of delicate picking and bottleneck slide and concludes with a fine instrumental, Brother Pilgrim, that recalls the majesty of John Fahey. His voice is a smooth huskied croon which allows him to sound comfortable in his skin and the combination of voice and guitar makes for a stimulating listen with several of the songs outstanding. Pilgrim’s Reach is a fine flowing flourish of fingerpicking guitar while Spit Me Outta the Whale is a masterclass in bottleneck playing. If you want to listen to an old time gospel blues album without the sonic imperfections of shellac then go dig this. Wonderful.

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