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Music Consumption: Joel R.L. Phelps
09/12/1999 Joel R.L. Phelps: live

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
(new song)
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)
Poor Delaney
Landslide Encores:
Hope's Hit (solo acoustic)
(new song--Joel acoustic, Bill on bass & drums, Bob on electric)
Lost Continent

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.