Joel RL Phelps and the Downer Trio, David Sanders: Coventry – Live Review
The Tin Music and Arts, Coventry
15th September 2014
Following the release of the excellent Gala album, Joel RL Phelps and the Downer Trio embarked on their first European Tour. Louder Than War’s Adrian Bloxham caught up with them in Coventry.
The Tin Music and Arts is a venue that is almost hidden, it’s tucked into the side of Coventry’s Canal Basin so you find yourself walking around truncated areas of water and silent barges to get there. Inside its curved ceilings are low and bricked. A warm friendly venue. Tonight decked out with tables and candles in anticipation of Joel Phelps and his band.
First on is David Sanders, he and percussionist Marc take the stage from the table just in front of it. Marc plays drums with his hands on a wooden box that sounds like a drum kit. David introduced himself and plays guitar. It’s gentle and soft folk music; they are slow building torch songs, sad and lonely. He jokes about a Dylan cover being obligatory for acoustic sets and his is heartfelt and loud. For the most part the music is maudlin and sad with the odd moment of strummed noise, it’s a good set and I will look out for him again.
Joel RL Phelps sits on a small, black wooden table and sings up to the microphone. He is slight, wearing a hoodie and jeans and is utterly absorbed in the music he is making. William is a solid presence behind the drum kit, playing either with brushes or sticks depending on the song, he keeps it all going, Robert, possibly the tallest man in the room, stands and plays the bass, all of them intense and all fitting together perfectly.
The first song is long, slow and dark. The darkness seeps into the set, captivating you and making you feel the wildness just under the surface. It feels like music you would listen to on a cold winter’s night as you are running out of Rum and cigarettes. It feels like the noise is one step away from breaking out completely but the band are holding it in check through sheer willpower.
Joel is self effacing and genuinely grateful after each song, at one point shifting the table so he can see the audience properly he apologises to the couple of people he has shifted away from… we don’t mind, the music is enough. It is his voice that grounds this sound, the United States punk folk vocal that makes you think of Grant Hart and his ilk.
The sound doesn’t stay slow and low. It hits hard and nasty with the clean uncluttered feel of US Post Hardcore, making you remember where all the bands went after thrash, how Husker Du built up their melody and Fugazi seemed to bend sound around corners. It burns white hot with a punk sensibility and sound and it gets you right in the heart. Robert is now moving around the stage, William, unruffled, playing the beat as if it requires no effort at all. Joel sings, and sings straight from his soul.
Then Robert and William leave the stage and Joel alone plays and the songs are low and sad, singing about the whiskey running out ‘If all that Holy water’s gone then I’m gone, I’m gone’. The set finishes with another deep dark folk song that is hard and remorseless, that makes me think of lying alone at night unable to sleep and unable to remember why.
It’s not often that I feel privileged to be at a gig but this one was special. Joel RL Phelps and the Downer Trio, if you’ve seen them already you’ll know what I mean, if you haven’t yet, well, get there next time.
All words by Adrian Bloxham, you can read more from Adrian at his author archive here.
All pictures by Martin Ward.