Kelly Joe Phelps has been travelling with the blues for over a decade and a half. Before that he was a jazz musician, bass player, music teacher and improviser. First and foremost, he is a songwriter and guitar player of both the straight and slide variety. Based in Vancouver, Washington---"Nowadays it's a sprawling mess only 10 miles from Portland"---Phelps is on the road with his eighth album, a collection of solo instrumentals called Western Bell.
The recordings began as demos, a search for inspiration. "I wanted to kind of close my eyes and let my fingers do whatever happens," Phelps says. "I was improvising and recording what I was doing just to have something to go back to in case there were things I wanted to lift out for songs." As Phelps recorded, it became clear to him that the demos weren't just inspiration for songs, they were songs. He developed a synesthetic process of naming them. "I would record a thing and I would listen back to it and be sensitive enough to it, that the image that would come to mind would be the title," he says. "Or the image would bring a title out."
Phelps hasn't turned his back on lyrics---a typical show is still mostly, if not entirely, guitar and vocals. But he takes comfort in the fact that he played instrumentally for the first half of his career.
"Prior to '92, I didn't sing at all," he says. "Before I started singing, I'd already been playing bass and guitar for a dozen years or so." Don't expect a set list from Phelps at The Carleton on Sunday (his first show in town since the Jazz Fest five years ago). "By not doing a set list I can climb deeper into the experience and wander around more."