“Tunesmith Retrofit” is a striking title for an album. But it’s an apt description for Kelly Joe Phelps’ continuing work to balance his instrumental prowess with the strictures of good composition.
“I’m sure that’s going to be my lifelong work right there,” says the 46-yearold singer-songwriter from Portland, Ore., who began his career as an instrumental whiz before adding vocals and lyrics to the mix in the early ’90s.
“I perceive the biggest challenge is in trying to understand how to balance what I may be able to do with a guitar with what is needed for the song. So that phrase (‘Tunesmith Retrofit’) for me refers to going back into a (song’s) foundation and making sure the joints and the connections are all cool, and if they’re not then what to do to make them a little stronger.”
“Tunesmith Retrofi t” represents Phelps’ broadest and most diverse work yet, with tributes to folk icon Dave Van Ronk (“MacDougal”) and the late Chris Whitley (“Handful of Arrows”), as well as a broader instrumental spectrum that includes melodica and banjo. The latter appears on the instrumental “Scapegoat” and was, according to Phelps, a suggestion from his girlfriend.
“We were just sitting around one morning and I was plucking around on the guitar, and she made some offhand comment like, ‘That sounds like banjo,’ ” Phelps recalls. “She said, ‘Why don’t you have a banjo?’ — ’cause I didn’t own one. I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and literally went out that day and bought one.
“It was one of those sort of organic things. I didn’t realize I was waiting for that moment.”
So what happens when the girlfriend asks about a drum machine?
“She moves out,” Phelps says with a laugh.
Kelly Joe Phelps performs at 8 p.m. Friday (August 18th) at The Ark, 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor. Tickets are $15. Call (734) 761-1451 or visit
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