There were plenty of alternative tunings and unorthodox fret-hand techniques displayed when guitarists Willy Porter and Kelly Joe Phelps split a double bill at the Birchmere on Wednesday night. And no shortage of odd lyrics, too.
Porter, who drew the louder response, laced his solo set with finger-tapping virtuosity and tunes that ranged from introspective ballads to amusing improvisations based on a few random phrases (e.g., "Brazilian bikini wax") shouted out by members of the audience. His on-the-spot composing proved more entertaining than some of the sentimental ballads he performed, including "Unconditional," but every tune was enhanced by his mastery of the steel-string guitar.
Phelps followed with a somber and intriguing collection of original tunes featuring fiddler-mandolinist Jesse Zubot and lap steel guitarist Steve Dawson. Though the trio arrangements were clearly inspired by Phelps's new CD, "Slingshot Professionals," with its subtly woven string band textures, Phelps quietly set the mood, using little rhythmic licks or finger-picking patterns to set a tune in motion.
Dawson's gliding handiwork sometimes recalled the days when Phelps played solo slide guitar onstage. But as "Cardboard Box of Batteries," "Circle Wars" and other songs demonstrated, the focus has shifted: Phelps is more of a collaborator than an instrumentalist these days, more of a songwriter than a guitarist. The combination of his brooding baritone and image-laden songs evoked country blues traditions without seeming at all derivative, and though the show would have benefited from an occasional change of pace, Phelps sustained a tone that rang soulful and true.
-- Mike Joyce