Sad to learn that Kelly Joe’s died. More poignant because it was sudden and he was only 62 (same age as me, coincidentally, which makes the cold breeze blow across the back of my neck).
He wasn’t a major influence for me, but I saw him play a mesmerising live show at The Live Room in Saltaire half a dozen years ago — he took a break from performing in 2013 because of a nerve problem in his arm, so the gig was delayed and rescheduled.
He seems to have been a restless, changeable soul, first noticed for playing slide guitar lap-style but who then made more than one fairly fundamental change of musical direction and technique.
His final album, apart from a ‘Best of’ compilation, was Brother Sinner and the Whale, released in 2012; it’s a blues and gospel collection in which he wrestles with a religious awakening and conversion that isn’t going smoothly. The early tracks have a strong flavour of ‘I believe, help thou my unbelief’ though by the end of the album we reach a joyous version of the old hymn Guide me, O thou great Jehova.
It’s a record that takes a while to reveal itself. The guitar playing is fluid and rhythmic, but the vocals are free and quietly soulful and need a little persistence before the songs become familiar. But the harder I listen, the better it gets. One of the stand-outs for me is Down to the praying ground, where the seamless interplay of slide and finger-picking is downright astonishing.
And as a charming post-script, check out this by Tim O’Brien: Kelly Joe’s Shoes, a whimsical piece about a cast-off pair of sneakers.