When I discovered that Kelly Joe Phelps was playing in Newtownards I was really surprised. Here is an internationally renowned artist coming to play a little hall, in a little town, in a little country. It was a pleasant surprise though - a few years ago I had bought one of his albums and loved how his vocal melodies tied together his finger-picking, acoustic licking, sonic mosaics. I readily agreed to go along with a friend.
After two very decent opening acts, Kelly Joe Phelps was introduced by the compare but took a moment to appear. Was he really here or was this some kind of facade to get his fans to attend a gathering that would otherwise be empty? But sure enough, a couple of minutes later, a smallish man seemed to hobble along the front of the stage before taking a seat. A long hovering microphone pointed in his direction, though he didn't seem to notice.
As he started picking his guitar, his body writhed into all kinds of different shapes. It was as if the control and precision he displayed on his instrument was compensation for his lack of control over his other bodily movements. He hunched over the guitar, his head jotted out like a chicken, then he howled like a wolf as a particularly enjoyable sequence of notes was ran through. He also seemed to be lost in a world of his own.
He showed little interest in his audience. You could tell straight away what music meant to this man. It was a way of exercising control over a life that probably lacked control. My friend looked at me, as if to wonder if the artist wasn't quite normal. I mentioned to my friend that he had found his zone.
With Kelly Joe Phelps, his genius is subtle. The bluesy guitar notes underscored vocal melodies that seem to have more in common with Irish Ballads. Still, it worked amazingly well. If he were a cook, he would be the sort of man who would serve up chocolate with potatoes- but make it work.
After the gig, my friend mentioned that he preferred the second support act, an Australian called Owen Campbell. It was true that Campbell created more crowd interaction and had a greater presence on stage. He told stories between songs and made his segment extremely enjoyable. Phelps in my book was the master though. He took his guitar, sang his songs and vanished into the night wench he came. A ghost of a man, there was something magical that happened during this apparition. Sometimes it requires belief before you can acknowledge the existence of spirits.