Joel Phelps's Blackbird tightens its grip, with songs that scrape open your wounds for cleaning. Standouts are still "Unless You're Tired of Living," "Get the Chills," the Donner Party anthem "Blessed Salt Lake," "Wading in the Water," and the Comsat Angels cover "Lost Continent." I'd list all of 'em, but then I wouldn't be listing standouts. Arrangements do indeed vary from guitar-bass-drums, with pennywhistle making a comeback on "Living," "One Got Caught," and "Lost Continent," which also features appropriate electric piano and a fine harmony vocal. Electric piano also shows up on "Wading" and acoustic 12-string puts in an appearance on "Chills." Not only do we have a great one here, but the Trio is playing in town tonight. I'll mention again that tour dates are available from Pacifico Records.
The show was excellent. I think "the Millvale Industrial Theater" is the best place in town to see shows right now--since it's not a bar, there's no "the show can't go on until we sell enough drinks" vibe. The opener was the local band Hovland, who were pretty good, apart from the singer's having ruined his voice shouting at a football game. They're worth watching for.
The Karl Hendricks Rock Band suffered from a bad mix, it's sad to say, exacerbated somewhat by the arrangement choice of two Gibsons--LP and SG. Maybe it's just me aging and losing my ability to hear high frequencies, but I really would have liked to hear one of them using a Telecaster or something.
The Phelps/Downer set was really good. As best as I can reconstruct it, the set list was this:
Rev. Robert Irving (acoustic)
Unless You're Tired of Living
Blessed Salt Lake
I Got a Live One
Then Slowly Turn (I think)
Get the Chills
(new song, possibly titled "Little Thief")
Wading in the Water
One Got Caught (not totally sure of the order of this one, but late in the set)
Hope's Hit (solo acoustic)
(new song--Joel acoustic, Bill on bass & drums, Bob on electric)
While I'm sure the long drive from Chicago took some energy out of the Trio, they were in fine form for the Pittsburgh show. The songs were primarily from Blackbird, which is fine with me by this point. It was a great pleasure to hear Joel play electric live, with the Telecaster and (surprise!) a Matchless amp. Later he said that the Chicago show had him a little freaked out, having all that power after playing acoustic for so long, but there was little evidence at this show that he was less than comfortable. (At one point--on "One Got Caught," I think--he seemed to want to hold a note with feedback, but the system went microphonic instead. No big deal.)
Both playing and singing heightened the drama and introverted power of the songs. Vocally, Joel played a bit with the cadences, stretching out some words, letting some sit behind the beat, mixing it up. Likewise, some of Bob's bass lines were more minimal than on record, giving the songs a touch of understated tension as well as some extra space. Everyone remained standing, except for the first two songs of the encore set, and Joel alternately playing to the audience and turning inward toward the band.
Some favorites from the set were "Wading," "Unless," "Salt Lake," "One Got Caught" (which sort of revealed the song to me), "Landslide" (which went on for quite a while--the extended ending was glorious), and the encores--the new song in the encore set was stunning, "Hope's Hit" was the song that first grabbed me, and "Lost Continent" hit all the right emotional and musical points, even without the studio arrangement I'm fond of.
The mood of the set was relaxed and upbeat, even with the sad songs. Although the audience wasn't huge (Sunday night, after all), it was appreciative. I'm not sure if the three encores is a standard, but I'd imagine they wouldn't bother for an indifferent audience. If I have any dissatisfaction, it would be with the vocal mix--Joel's higher voice came through fine, but his chest voice was at times hard to hear. Not the Trio's fault, to be sure; it was true of the other bands as well. Overall, a really good performance--we brought a friend to the show, and he came away impressed. If you're lucky enough to be in one of the Tour cities, you should go.
The big news is the new Joel Phelps release, Blackbird. The first few tunes are way more distorted than even the Silkworm stuff, and then it opens up into quieter--but no less intense--tunes. Among these harrowingly emotional tunes, the sole cover, "Lost Continent," comes across as generous as well as moving. Some really amazing songs here. At the moment, I've only listened to it once. The way-distorted tunes are a bit of an adjustment, and there isn't quite the space around the instruments as on the other discs, but it's a winner, proof of which emerges on the chill-inducing "Unless You're Tired of Living" and "Blessed Salt Lake." Other songs are just as good, but I need more time to absorb them. And Phelps/The Downer Trio is/are on tour. Check the Pacifico Records website for dates and times.
Still listening to Joel Phelps. There's a new site maintained by Daniel Jurnove, which is excellent and up-to-the-minute. Photos from the latest recording session indicate a) that the new material is very electric, possibly something like the first LP, and b) end of an era--Joel's lost the goatee. Looking pretty good there, Joel.
I've come to appreciate the beauty of the Downer Trio EP, which particularly resides in "Razorback" and "At El Paso," two very powerful songs. You owe it to yourself to check this out.
Joel Phelps: Warm Springs Night and The Downer Trio EP
Based in part on the beyond-amazing experience of "3" and Eric Hahn's recommendation (both on his excellent Phelps and Silkworm pages and in email), I picked up the first Phelps solo disc and the EP. And they're amazing. Joel Phelps has to be one of our great songwriters, and you're seriously missing out if you haven't checked out these recordings (and "3", too). Warm Springs Night is louder than what I expected, kind of like what Crazy Horse would sound like without a bassist, but with an extended tonal palette. The songs are incredibly moving, too, but you probably don't want to listen to it when you're deeply depressed. Or maybe you might.
The immediate standouts for me are "The Graze and the Graves," "Warm Springs Night," "Lady Lucero," and "All We Want," but the others are good, too. It's an interesting halfway point between Silkworm and "3".
The EP hasn't walloped me the way the longer disc has, but that doesn't mean it won't grab you. The three Phelps originals (not counting the uncredited and probably original instrumental) are again excellent--"Razorback" is somehow lightheartedly sad, and subtly catchy. I haven't gotten a handle on "Good Advice for Dogs" yet, other than this is one where he finally pushes his voice too hard, and his pitch diverts from the song completely. "At El Paso" could well have been a hit somewhere--uptempo and open, but haunting and sad. The two covers are good, too.
There's something very old about this music, an oldness at its core, that makes up a big part of what moves me. It's like the land--vast, wide open, and old.
Just picked up a bunch of CDs: "3" by Joel Phelps: the Downer Trio. Absolutely essential listening. Full of space, mystery, and intense healing, the way American music should be. It's what you should put on when your soul's just sick with worry, fatigue, and misery--or at least when you're aware of this as a possibility. (I'm not saying this is the state I'm in, but I can definitely see how it would help.) And it works even if that isn't your frame of mind. I'll note that there is a detectable country influence here--an honest late-20th-century post-slowcore kind of country. A few weeks ago, I was listening to WRCT and happened to hear "Hope's Hit," which grabbed me until I could buy it. A mere couple of mouse clicks stand between you and this powerful music.