Kelly Joe Phelps
Roll Away the Stone
Rykodisc RCD-0393
A man and his guitar contemplates existence, mortality and the hereafter during an intense period of soul searching in the dead of night. Faith shaken but not yet abandoned. Such is the mood evoked by Roll Away the Stone, Kelly Joe Phelps' second solo outing. There are no overdubs. No back-up band or production frills. Just his quiet, pensive voice and beautifully expressive guitar work, up close and personal, drawing you into his musings.

Spirituality and faith are the subject matter, and one can only speculate on the source of inspiration for Phelps' powerful meditations in his quest for solace during troubled times. He interprets the gospel-flavored, traditional blues songs "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder," Skip James' "Cypress Grove" and Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" and conjures his own potent religious imagery in original songs like "Footprints" and "Hosanna." "Without the Light" is a slow and lovely gospel workout; Phelps' breathy, haunted vocals perfectly capture the sense of moody, quiet contemplation at work.

The guitar work veers between direct and otherworldly, earthbound one moment, reaching for the stratosphere the next. The tone is reminiscent of John Fahey's explorations in spiritual, acoustic-based idiosyncrasy. "Go There" is a straight-ahead, driving country blues ala Mississippi John Hurt. The title track features a lot of "free" playing; though the phrasing is not limited by strict meter, 4/4 time, it flows freely, punctuated by quirky -- but "right" -- slide work.

Phelps takes you on a spiritual journey without leaving his own back porch, ending with the beautiful instrumental, "Doxology," offering a sense of peace found at last. His understated virtuosity is exciting and refreshing, and if you're in the mood for reflection, Roll Away the Stone stands alone, a rare distillation of blues as a vehicle for quiet introspection.

-- Jon Martinez

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Boulder, CO, USA.