Solo blues wizard Kelly Joe Phelps actually has a band. For now
(For full transcription of this interview)
These days, Kelly Joe Phelps has to pay for his red wine at Cafe Lena, instead of drinking on the house. But he's not complaining. The Portland blues scene's most distinctive export, Phelps held down a twice-weekly engagement at the tiny Hawthorne eatery from 1992 to 1995. Today, Phelps plays houses dozens of times larger than Lena's narrow confines, for droves of paying customers who also pay him rapt attention rather than yakking over eggs or tofu. But to hear him tell it, what goes on in his own skin is unchanged from those cafe days.
Playing at Cafe Lena, Phelps learned "how to focus, because I had to be able to tune a lot of things out and dig into the music," he says of the homey gig, which helped him transition from playing bass in jazz bands to honing his novel solo country-blues and acoustic slide-guitar style. "And after doing that for three, four years, I found that when I showed up onstage for a ticket-buying audience, it wasn't a stretch for me to be unconcerned about the social setting. I was able to climb inside the music and not really concern myself with what was outside of it."
That immersion in his craft led to international acclaim, but in the time between his third album, 1999's Shine Eyed Mister Zen, and last year's Sky Like a Broken Clock, the bluesman found himself at yet another crossroads: "A lot of the stuff [I'd been playing] was very guitar-driven, more attached to early blues music which didn't have so much to do with storytelling and lyric content as with expelling some sort of passion. But in wanting to develop musically and creatively, the one thing that seemed to stand out to me was, there's a lot more I could do with these words."
So with Sky Like a Broken Clock, Phelps became a bona fide songwriter, combining a longstanding love of literature with his passion for music. Leaving holes in his stories to mirror the space in his guitar playing--now sans slide--he found "a way to attack lyrics in the same way that I was attacking the guitar."
Another change the latest album brought was the famously solo Phelps' return to ensemble playing. "[I thought] some other instruments would help broaden the color spectrum and bring these stories more to life than I could do on my own," he explains.
But don't expect that shift to stick. Musically, Phelps says he prefers the single life, and this week's show at the Aladdin is one of only three he's playing with the accompanists from the album: Tom Waits' longtime bassist Larry Taylor and supple, subtle Morphine drummer Billy Conway. The combustion between the three will be largely spontaneous; as with the recording, Phelps plans no rehearsals prior to the mini-tour. And after that, it's back on the lonesome road.
"Anything else is a distraction," he says. "I'd just as soon play." Jeff Rosenberg
The Kelly Joe Phelps Trio plays Friday at the Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., 233-1994. 8 pm. $16.50+ advance, $18 day of show. All ages.
On Your Knees, You Knave, You Varlet
Princess Superstar is coming.
Princess Superstar does a song called "Wet Wet Wet." Princess Superstar invites you to "put your mouth where the bitch is." Princess Superstar says she works all the angles and has nicer tits than all the Bangles. In "Bad Babysitter," Princess Superstar mics the mind of a teenage babysitter who keeps her boyfriend in the shower while she's makin' six bucks an hour.
No wonder Princess Superstar--a.k.a. Concetta Kirschner, Sicilian/Russian/Polish/Jewish Brooklyn hip-hop legend in her own mind (and soon in her own time)--faces accusations of being the "white Li'l Kim" and the "female Kool Keith." But in a typically off-kilter moment on Princess Superstar Is..., la Concetta royale offers a most unexpected rebuttal: She's not any of them other things; she's the black Shirley Temple.
"I guess that means I'm entertaining," elaborates Kirschner between giggles on the telephone. "That I'm singin' and tap-dancing, but rhyming, too."
Princess Superstar Is... is a slick show of braggadocio, surreal sex, slinky beats, high concepts, low humor and tongues buried snugly in cheek and elsewhere. It follows three indie albums (one titled, with characteristic mock immodesty, Last of the Great 20th Century Composers) that have snapped dog collars 'round the necks of a harem of fans.
"I've had amazing critical acclaim," quoth the Princess. "It's hard to get a lot of sales when you're an independent artist, but I've always felt like people do get it, and that they love it when they get it."
Indeed, Princess Superstar Is... makes it clear that this is one young hip-hop impresaria who won't rest until she achieves complete dominance--despite the fact that some people don't quite know what to make of her.
"Hardcore hip-hop heads tend to be a little bit more critical of what I do, which kind of sucks," she says. "Obviously my beats are hot and I can rhyme--I mean, that's not even a fucking issue. Not to sound cocky or anything, but come on.... Actually, I've really had a lot of good comments from hip-hop heads. They think I'm weird and that what I'm doing is totally out of left field. But then who doesn't?" Zach Dundas
Princess Superstar plays Wednesday at Satyricon, 125 NW 6th Ave., 243-2380. 10 pm. $8+ advance (Fastixx). 21+. The Helio Sequence also performs.
TIPS ON HOW TO MAKE YOUR MUSIC SCENE BETTER
Hiss and Vinegar
A BRILLIANT CONCEPT, THIS INTERNET THING
Let no one say that everything you find online is a waste. Sure, a website featuring nothing but a screen fulla the color purple (www.purple.com) is soothing in a Prince-pimps-color-therapy way, but did the world really demand more than one Hampsterdance site? (That's a rhetorical question--if the answer were actually "yes," we'd have to start mixing razor-blade milkshakes on the double.) However, there is one place on the great digital frontier more than worth its domain registration fee: www.cdbaby.com. The site was founded in 1998 by Portlander Derek Sivers as a way to hawk his CD via the Net, but word of mouth soon spread from his friends to independent musicians around the world. Today, the tiny Portland company--fewer than 10 employees--sells the albums of more than 15,000 artists, shipping discs from its warehouse directly to the consumers. But that's not the best part. Giving the finger to the middling 10% royalty rate handed to most musicians by The Bigs, CD Baby pays anywhere from $6-$12 per disc sold. That, simply put, rulez. Recently, CD Baby passed the $1 million mark in payouts to its artists, making it the second largest independent music retailer on the web, playing backup only to Amazon.com. Can you say "kicking ass above and beyond the call of duty"?
A CRY FOR HELP
Portland, it is said, has more brewpubs per capita than anywhere outside the brauhaus heaven of Munich, Germany. Awesome. But ask anyone under the giddy age of 21 and they'll tell you the all-ages entertainment options in this beer-drenched town range from dull (e.g., movies at the mall) to deadly (e.g., anything in Beaverton). The few sparks of underage life usually come from music venues. Those come and go like rains in Africa, however, and soon another one of those venues is evaporating: It's a Beautiful Pizza, the Deadhead 'za joint which has hosted a number of all-ages shows in its basement. Plans to move the restaurant operation across Southeast Belmont Street mean the basement space will no longer be available to independent promoters who had organized punk, electronic, improv and other music events there. Yet one young impresario, Brian Budack, isn't willing to just kiss IABP goodnight and put his hardcore shows to bed. He's looking for a suitable space, with a capacity of anywhere between 100 and 500 people, to host punk, hardcore, psychobilly, etc. gigs in the future; if you have an inkling of such a place, contact Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, Brian's got at least one more show scheduled at IABP, a Jan. 25 evening matinee featuring Dead Even, Outreach, EPD, No Thanks to You and Shade Red. The show starts at 6 pm, costs $5 and is, of course, all ages.
PLUG ME IN
In case you just emerged from your isolation tank, George Harrison passed away on Nov. 29, 2001. The death has prompted Disc Jockey Gregarious to put together another one of his famed, fun and massively popular tribute nights, scheduled at the Blackbird for Feb. 24, the "first" birthday of the Beatle guitarist and Mr. Spock-lookalike. (Attention trivia buffs: Harrison's actual birthday is Feb. 25, but his 'round-midnight emergence into the world made for some confusion as to the actual date, so both dates had been celebrated at different times during his life.) If you think you can do justice to "All Things Must Pass" better than that schmuck down the street ham-fisting his way through "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," contact Greg at email@example.com. Three minutes of fame awaits you.
Gimme gimme gimme--I need some more. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.