Kelly Joe Phelps + Sarah Harmer

by Shain Shapiro

7 December 2006

The Eagles effect and a search for nostalgia-free sentiment.

The aura of antiquity often colors a date with an epochal songsmith, making the music seem special simply because it’s soaked in history and shared experience. I remember joining thousands of screaming baby boomers alongside their children—my mother and I included—whistling along to “Our House” as CSNY finally returned for a ‘comeback’ or ‘farewell’ or ‘do not forget that we still exist’ tour. It was unbridled jubilance, temporally resistive musical transcendence, a real-life greatest hits album.

Yet, when such shows are experienced over and over, they grow as tiring as getting up in the morning for that eye-opening jog. The greatest-hits songs become clichés, caricatures of themselves, plagued by what I refer to as the Eagles syndrome. Seeing CSNY perform the same show three more times—twice with my mom—wasn’t transcendent; it was exhausting. The second time was nice, but when the third rendition of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” wound down, my mother felt ancient, and I felt the tinge of antiquity tapping my shoulder.

To avoid such forced introspection, it’s better to seek the eponymous troubadours, the ones who continue exploring, expanding, and churning out new material. Jackson Browne pulls this off, as does Mary Gauthier and Emmylou Harris. Kelly Joe Phelps—another iconic troubadour, who, while not as old, is arguably as influential—succeeds as well. Instead of rolling through the rocky hills of his back catalogue, Phelps focuses on material from his new catalogue, one that makes me wonder why the man is so darn underrated, even after more than a decade of picking.

Chairs were set up in the Paradiso Bovenzaal’s upstairs hall, a utility room in the converted church that houses up-and-comers—the proverbial “big guns” shoot up the downstairs hall. As thumping beats from the Roots shook the walls of the room—they were playing downstairs— Sarah Harmer emerged with an accompanying acoustic guitar player to wind through a short opening set that focused on her powerful pipes. Harmer, while extremely popular in Canada, has only just been picked up by Rounder Europe, and was pleased to introduce Amsterdam to her folk-crimped, brooding country music.

Another example of an artist feeding out of her trough of new material, Harmer wound through a half-dozen tracks from her newsiest record, I’m a Mountain, with just an acoustic, hollow-body Gibson steel and her voice. With a few Canadian expats crooning alongside, Harmer used the subdued set-up to accentuate each lyric as if it were on trial.

Emerging with an acoustic guitar in tow forty-five minutes later and taking a seat with a dormant banjo, Kelly Joe Phelps quietly acknowledged the audience before sinking his chops into “Big Shaky.” One of the best tracks off his stripped-down, primarily acoustic Rounder debut, Tunesmith Retrofit, Phelps’ song set a theme that he would symmetrically revisit throughout the set, as his finger-picked frolicking overrode the songs’ intensity, acting like the calm that controlled the storm.

Phelps is a reserved, viscerally shy troubadour, and his stage persona consequently shuns the spotlight, creating a distance between his personality, his songs, and the audience. Yet, by letting the songs speak for themselves and remaining subdued, he allowed each song to build on the emotion, hurt, and redemption inherent in their passing melodies.

Phelps drew from a wide range of tunes, from stumbling, whisky-fortified blues to simple, Appalachian bluegrass instrumentals. His fragile picking, scratchy vocal accompaniment, and relaxed demeanor combined to illuminate each track, including the slow-blues drenched “Crow’s Nest” and the idyllic folk find “Red Light Nickel.”

Phelps’s work was inventive, perplexing, depressing, uplifting, and downright melancholic, all at once. The greatest-hits ethos was thankfully away on vacation, as it was the new material—the babies rather than the baby boomers—that Phelps indulged. Very few baby boomers and thirty-somethings sang along; they were silenced by new malaise, new problems, and new melodies. I only recognized a few of the spacious songs, but I know Kelly Joe Phelps, and it was his ingenuity, rather than his back catalogue, that kept the room still.

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