On the face of it, it might seem that the Portland, Ore.-based Phelps is guilty of suburbanizing the blues. After all, he packed the West Chester club with adult-alternative radio listeners lured in by acoustic originals and quieted updatings of such bluesmen as Muddy Waters and Skip James. (Too quieted, in fact: Phelps could have used a little more volume to better do battle with the chatterboxes at the bar, who were drowning him out.)
But there's nothing simple or compromised about Phelps' music: Onstage, as on his debut Lead Me On (Burnside), he created a warm, inviting sound as complex as it was accessible. Phelps is a prodigious player: He finger-picked flurries of notes with never-in-a-hurry precision and created rich, shifting rhythmic beds with just the deft use of silence and the thump of his hollow guitar.
Phelps' versions of James' "32-20 Blues" and Waters' "I Can't Ever Be
Satisfied" may lack the ferocity of the originals, but they capture his own sense of confusion and dislocation and spiritual loss that are present in so many of his own compositions. "Ain't that the way of a pilgrim, yeah he's always moving on," he sang, sounding uncertain of his bearings even as he created an ever-shifting musical landscape with utter confidence in "Where Do I Go Now."
Phelps' travels are sure to bring him back this way, and he's worth catching up to. He's a real find.