Kelly Joe Phelps: Brother Sinner And The Whale


Format:  CDProduct Details

Genre:  Blues (acoustic)

Tracks:  12

Playing time:  51 minutes

Availability (out of 3):  ***

Related website(s):;   (unofficial)

 My rating:  9/10

I like: Minimal arrangements, upbeat and more plaintive songs and moods, interplay of voice and guitar

I’m less keen on :  Minimal sleeve notes


Soon after seeing TV footage of Kelly Joe Phelps at the Cambridge Folk Festival years ago I bought his debut album, “Lead Me On.” In my opinion that remains his best album, which isn’t so much a criticism of his later work as praise for that one. A number of years and several musical twists and turns later we find this release.


Hailing  from Washington State in the north-west of the USA, 41wwnk6ocgl-_sl256_ initially his main guitar technique was “lap style” with the guitar balanced on the lap. This facilitates some very nuanced and emotive playing by sliding a metal bar along one or several strings.

Kelly Joe Phelps playing guitar lap-style



The sound is the same as when a player slips a metal or glass tube (or “bottleneck”; originally they were made from cut-down bottles) over a finger when holding the guitar in the traditional way, as shown to the left, but the lap-style technique allows a more subtle playing style.

Born in 1959, he has had a number of personal as well as professional ups and downs over the years. This album seems to have sprung from a personal crisis and a return both to his musical and religious roots.

I saw him in an intense live performance in the UK in 2009. He didn’t feel comfortable enough to face fans afterwards, but I was fortunate enough, and honoured to hand the CD cover of “Lead Me On” to one of his road crew for Kelly Joe to autograph.

The album

comes in the increasingly popular (though not with me – my copy is now in a slimline jewel case!) card packaging. It’s minimally arranged, with Kelly Joe playing and singing solo.

I find his voice just right for blues and blues-related songs, with a slight natural huskiness that adds to the mood.

There are 12 tracks and it plays for 51 minutes. It comes with minimal accompanying notes but each track is illustrated with some graphics over which the title or related phrase is displayed.

The tracks

Most are vocal, and all but one (“I’ve Been Converted”) are credited as original compositions, though “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehova” should also have been excluded.

Kelly Joe plays a variety of acoustic guitars; some songs feature a traditional wooden-bodied one, whilst others are accompanied on a resonator instrument.

In these, the sound is amplified by means of an aluminium cone (or cones) inside a wooden bodied (often termed a dobro) or a metal bodied instrument. img_2400-jpgoriginal


Inside a “dobro”, or wooden-bodied resonator guitar



1933 “National” Style O guitar 

The sound is very different from that of a traditional wooden bodied instrument and, at the risk of stating the obvious, it has a more metallic tone that many people would recognise.

I like the variety of instruments and sounds on the album. The minimal arrangement of all the songs may not be to all tastes, but I find that it results in a distraction-free sound. It also adds an air of authenticity; this is how vintage blues and gospel were played and sung, after all.


The strength of this album is Kelly Joe’s empathy with and conviction for the lyrics and the tunes. This isn’t a commercial replication of the sound and mood of 1920s blues and gospel; rather it represents, as stated on the artist’s own website, a “return to his Christian roots”.

For me, much of its appeal is the way the guitar interweaves with the vocal. Sometimes the guitar mirrors the vocal line; at others it plays licks behind it, and fills in with some lovely motifs. What sets Kelly Joe’s playing apart, though, is the almost endless variations that he produces. Sometimes a lick is played several times over, but more typically the accompaniment and fills are variations and improvisations, and to my mind Kelly Joe weaves quite a spell.

Talkin’ To Jehova

starts the album, an upbeat tune, in keeping with the lyrics (“I been talkin’ to Jehovah, and I believe…) As with many of the songs, the resonator guitar pauses and resumes from time to time to punctuate the lyrics, and at other times Kelly Joe plays a burst of notes, which I feel adds an unexpected twist and varies the rhythm.

Goodbye To Sorrowa-370858-1278728166-jpeg

is sung to a traditional acoustic guitar with a gentler sound.

It has an almost ragtime feel at times, and Kelly Joe sings with feeling and conviction. “I don’t have to fight temptations on my own…”

Hope In The Lord To Provide

is a slower song with resonator guitar, with a definite bluesy feel and rhythm. I like the licks Kelly Joe plays, and the combination of  picked-  and slide notes. I like the neat ending, too, played in free time and with a touch of dissonance.

Pilgrim’s Reach

has a slow introduction, punctuated by some pauses. Both the tune and the lyrics are more haunting and plaintive:

My inner demons, now they don’t like me at all,

they love to beat my heart to hell every time I fall…

“Why do I choose to suffer when I can live with God?

Long, dark valley, all my peace is gone…”

Spit Me Outta The Whale

is an instrumental, its title inspired by the Bible’s account of the prophet Jonah. Much as I like the vocal tracks, I do like this instrumental in its own right, and as added variety to the album, too.

Down To The Praying Ground

As there’s an official Youtube file of this, I don’t need to describe it. Kelly Joe plays it on a metal-bodied resonator guitar with a “bottleneck” on his fourth finger. As you’ll see if you play the clip, it comes from the album’s recording session

Guide me O Thou Great Jehova

(spelled thus on the album) will be familiar tune to many from their schooldays. This version has more of a song than a hymn “feel”, but I find it a lovely arrangement. Played on an acoustic guitar, the accompaniment is subtle and charming. Between some verses the guitar plays part of the melody as a fill, and there are some other lovely guitar fills between the sung lines, too.

Concluding comments

Its religious content may put some people off buying this album, but I think that anyone who likes acoustic blues, acoustic guitar or acoustic music with moving lyrics would enjoy listening to this. And, after all, it can always be sampled before buying.

The lyrics are truly moving, but at times the lyrics and the guitar weave a joint spell that I find absorbing. Personal taste means that I like one or two songs less than others, but overall I love it. I don’t tend to repeat- play any of the songs, but that’s just because I’m happy to listen to the next track, and the next, and I find the album quite entrancing.

I also like the fact that, whilst Kelly Joe doesn’t lay on the emotion with a trowel, there’s nothing contrived about the lyrics or the “feel” of the songs – it’s all genuine.

My rating: 9/10


Also recommended: Kelly Joe’s wonderful first album, “Lead Me On”. Hopefully I’ll review this at some stage. “Shine Eyed Mr Zen” is a very worthwhile album, too.


Please note that this blog is non-money making and is simply an attempt to share music that I love. I am anxious however to credit the sources of any illustrations included in my posts.

Photo credits:

Section “Who?” – Kelly Joe Phelps playing guitar lap style:

Section “Who?” – bottleneck guitar:

“Inside a ‘dobro’ wooden-bodied resonator guitar”:

“National O Style guitar:”

Section “Tracks/Goodbye To Sorrow” – Kelly Joe Phelps playing acoustic guitar:×300/filters:strip_icc():format(jpeg):mode_rgb():quality(40)/discogs-images/A-370858-1278728166.jpeg.jpg







Author: mostlyacousticsteve

My musical interests are mainly (but not exclusively) “folk” and acoustic blues music. I aim to publish a post about every two weeks. Although I'm in my 50s I'm new to blogging - please bear with me. My other interests are playing acoustic guitar, photography and wildlife.

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