Among the live-music joints along Arlington's Wilson Boulevard, the Galaxy Hut is by far the tiniest. Initially the snug quarters seemed perfect for Monday night's performance by intricate stylist Joel R.L. Phelps and his Downer Trio.

A founding member of prickly Montana rockers Silkworm, Phelps has narrowed his focus and made three solo albums. His latest, "Blackbird," is the finest yet.

While Monday's brief set evoked the influence of Townes Van Zandt, the serrated guitar style of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" was also unmistakable. "Blessed Salt Lake" and "One Got Caught" were highlights, with drummer William Herzog slapping his kit with open palms during the latter and bassist Robert Mercer anchoring the former's brooding tempo shifts.

Phelps is an expressive singer, though his reed-thin ululations were often too soft to register through the club's small public address system. Forced to cut things short by a midnight noise curfew, the Downer Trio never got to its best numbers. Still, performances of "I Got a Live One" and the broken country-western chords of the closing "Hope's Hit" proved that Phelps's gift for evocative songwriting is several leagues more sophisticated than most product coming out of Nashville these days.

Maybe his next visit will be at a venue where the performers' needs take precedence over those of the club and not vice versa.