The Cedar continues to bring in top notch acoustic blues acts that we don't often get a chance to see in other "club" type venues around town. With very little talk and in a matter-of- fact style, Kelly Joe Phelps opened the show with his acoustic guitar resting on his lap playing slide guitar--dobro style. This was a very low key performance with Kelly Joe in his jersey and baseball hat. His playing, however, was anything BUT low key. Letting his remarkable slide guitar and intricate fingerpicking do all of his talking Phelps put on a mesmerizing display.
From Washington State, Phelps began playing drums in grade school but soon discovered the guitar from the playing of Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin. After which "his dad handed him the family guitar, taught him a Lightnin' Hopkins riff and a couple of Hank Williams tunes - the next thing you know, Kelly Joe's sleeping with the damned thing." Next came Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, John Hammond, Leo Kottke, and John Fahey then jazz with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Finally, Fred McDowell, Skip James and Blind Willie Johnson. The combination of all these influences has inspired Kelly Joe Phelps to expand the boundaries of his slide guitar playing and puts him in a category pretty much all by himself. One way to describe his music would be Blues meets New Age. Kelly's website: http://www.kellyjoephelps.com/
John Hammond took the stage next putting on a passionate performance. A Grammy and W.C. Handy award winner, Hammond was part of the folk/blues revival of the early 1960's. Critics have described Hammond as a White Robert Johnson, and Hammond certainly does his best to live up to that praise. With his powerful, driving guitar and harmonica playing, combined with his uniquely expressive vocals, Hammond has carved out a career of reinterpreting classic blues songs from the 1930s, '40s and '50s that has spanned more than 4 decades.
Born November 13, 1942, in New York City, the son of famous Columbia Records talent scout, John Hammond, Sr., Hammond Jr. grew up with his mother and learned to play slide guitar in high school. After seeing his idol, Jimmy Reed at the Apollo Theatre his future course was set. With the harmonica rack around his neck and his acoustic guitar John set out on the coffeehouse circuit later playing concerts and festivals worldwide.
Along with Rory Block, John Hammond is one of the small number of acoustic blues performers that have remained true the source and have been instrumental in keeping this classic form of blues alive and well.
Hammond's performance can best be described as "intense." With his left foot tapping out a rhythm, his raw style is characterized by a relentless attack on the stings. He broke a string during his first song and it wasn't too long before another one went, to which he quipped, "one goes out and they all go out in sympathy." He later pulled out his resonator guitar and played Honeyboy Edward's "Drop Down Mama," followed by Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen," then "Step It Up And Go," "Killing Floor," and many other classic country blues as well as some inspired originals.
He would also carry on a conversation with the audience between songs. One time commenting that he always wanted to yodel like Jimmie Rogers (The Singing Brakeman) in the worst way, but all he could come up with was a howl. Then he discovered Charlie Patton and it was all over. He had discovered the music that touched his soul. He then related an amusing story about when he had run into Howlin' Wolf at the Ash Grove Theater in LA in 1963. He opened for Wolf who later, impressed by Hammond's playing, asked, "how did you learn to play like that?" Hammond said, "from records." To which Wolf replied, "me too."
Seeing John Hammond perform live is always a treat, and with his vast repertoire of songs you never know what he is going to pull out of his song bag next.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Ray Stiles, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission.