Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bluesy Abstractions

Live: Kelly Joe Phelps (Country Blues)
Taku Taku Club, Kyoto, Japan

A. Kelly Joe Phelps

These days too few world class singer-songwriters bother to step off the bullet train to ply their trade in Japan's cultural capital.

So last night a grateful crowd gathered to bear witness as Kelly Joe Phelps brought his impressionist-modernist-fantabulist country blues to Kyoto.

Phelps takes to the stage quietly and proceeds to play without a set list for ninety minutes. For the crowd - who knew there were this many Kelly Joe fans in Kyoto? - it's a spellbinding, almost ethereal experience.

Phelps has a famously physical playing style, dipping and weaving in his chair as he communes with the spheres. His eyes roll back as he mutters and whispers to himself, unleashing cascades of bluesy abstractions from his fretboard, vagrant semitones which shouldn't fit together but somehow make perfect sense.

His voice is hushed and deeply soulful, bizarrely connecting the dots between Fred McDowell, Pete Williams, Nick Drake and the recently-departed John Martyn.

We weren't treated to Kelly Joe's unique slide technique last night, and he didn't play my favorite composition Taylor John, but he performed fabulous versions of other Phelps classics including The Anvil and a truly spellbinding version of Woody Guthrie's Pastures Of Plenty.

We need more of this kind of alchemy in Kyoto. So Kelly Joe, and all you other bluesy dreamweavers... don't be strangers, alright?

B. Some Minor Beefs

It was a great performance last night which I thoroughly enjoyed.

But I have a couple of minor beefs.

Firstly, the show started at 7PM, which in my view is way too early, especially for a Saturday night. The Japanese - probably more than most nationalities - need a few drinks to loosen up a bit, and the atmosphere in the club was almost unbearably stiff before Kelly Joe took to the stage. The club was emptied by 9PM, no sense of occasion having been established.

This is a common occurrence at Japanese shows, but it's become no less irritating in the seven years I've been living here.

Indeed, things don't seem to have changed that much since the sixties. The Beatles enjoyed a successful 1966 tour of Japan, but were turned off by the obsessive punctuality and clinical over-organization.

I mean, it's rock 'n' roll, innit?

Most performers would, I'm sure, prefer to play for a crowd which has had an opportunity to settle in, enjoy a couple of drinks and unwind before the performance begins. I'm willing to bet Mr. Phelps rarely, if ever, plays so early on his travels.

My second gripe is the fact that there was no support act last night. Entrance was 6,000 yen on the door. At present exchange rates that's a hefty US$60.00 or UK£41.00 for a ninety-minute set.

My complaint isn't with the performer. Kelly Joe Phelps is a world-class musician who traveled a long way to play here, and Kyoto rarely sees such outstanding western talent. One expects to pay a bit more for top-notch live music in Japan.

But surely the club could have found a support act to warm up the crowd, create a sense of expectation for the headliner, stretch the night out and increase bar profits!

There are many talented local blues musicians who would, I'm sure, have jumped at the chance of such a high-profile slot for little or no financial reward.

On my recent visit to the UK, I saw the fantastic Martin Simpson. The support act was a local folkie whose twenty minute-warm-up really put the audience in the mood for the main attraction.

The show cost ten quid. A tenner, to watch one of the world's top folk acts.

So come on, club owners. Let's make a night of it.

There is a recession on, you know.


ted said...

Glad you got to this gig. I thought hard about it but didn't make it. Good stuff, eh?

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Hiya Ted, yeh nice one. He's a helluva player, and also interesting to see him so soon after I went to the Martin Simpson gig in the UK a few weeks back. They are not without their similarities, and Phelps and Simpson have worked together.