Review: Britt's fine acoustic show flies 'Under the Radar'

They called it the Under the Radar Festival and it was. Three acts — four hours of quality acoustic music — for $27 reserved or $16 to sit in the grass on the first hot night of summer, and the Britt hillside Friday night was half-empty.

There was Krista Detor playing songs that defy categorization on the big Steinway and singing phrases that made you think a bit of Leonard Cohen or maybe Laura Nyro. Even if at times she seemed to be trying a bit too hard.

And there was Kelly Joe Phelps being Kelly Joe Phelps, a finger-picking stylist and heartfelt singer who plays straight-ahead versions of old songs and not so old, even if after a time he settled into a some what somnolent groove.

And finally there were the Wailin' Jennys, bouncing achingly pure three-part harmonies around the hillside and playing a whole bunch of instruments, many of the stringed variety.

The Jennys (Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody and new Jenny Heather Masse) spent the past few years playing to bigger and bigger crowds and became faves of Garrison Keillor, (see correction note below) who has featured them on his show.

The Jennys opened with an a cappella number that established their voices, followed with a jump number that got the axes warmed up and put it together on "Arlington," a pensive ballad with Moody's accordion and sideman Jeremy Penner's fiddle filling the space behind the harmonies.

They sang a version Ledbelly's old "Silvie" ("bring me little water Silvie") so pure and lovely you could imagine the frost on the sweet potato vine. It would have been a great encore.

Much of the Jennys' music, as with Phelps, is downright archaic, or sounds like it even if it isn't. "Glory Bound, with Moody plucking banjo, sounded straight from an old-time tent revival meeting, especially when it became, of all things, a sing-along (Hallelujah!).

They mixed songs like Masse's "Drivin'," about missing her lover on a trip, and Mehta's "Begin," a thoughtful if slightly preachy ballad, with the likes of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."

The Jennys in large part inhabit a music universe once loosely called folk, but they are jazzy with a large dose of gospel and even a pop vibe that creeps in.

Phelps has a good following and is a real triple threat: he writes, he sings, and he plays fine acoustic guitar. He cut his teeth on Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell, but he's also done his Coltrane homework. With his body jerking and moving to his acoustic guitar, he seems plugged in to a living river of blues soul. The trouble Friday was, the river pretty much flowed over the same course. Eventually you'd like some rapids, maybe a waterfall.

Old-time music icon Dock Boggs' old "Country Blues" was one of Phelps' best numbers, played with precision and sung with passion. Other standouts were "The Anvil" and "House Carpenter."

When a Phelps tune comes on the radio it picks you up, but this night there was too much sameness, too much mellow for Friday night.

Phelps and the Jennys have their fans, but Detor was probably an unknown quantity to most in the crowd. Dressed in jeans and a black smock, her long auburn hair parted in the middle, the temp in the 90s, she said, "I picked a good day to dress like Johnny Cash."

She's a fine pianist with a big voice who writes quirky, winning (see correction note below) songs. She played accompanied only by her partner, acoustic guitarist David Weber. "Minefield" sounded like singer-songwriter angst. "Mudshow" was a sly tune about working in a small-time circus.

"Robert Johnson Has Left Mississippi" was one of her best, a cinematic, bluesy ballad. "Early Grave" was a rootsy vocal stretch-out about a woman you don't wanna mess with, and it simply rocked.

Idiosyncratic numbers like "Anemic Moon," "Icarus" and "The Hampton Sisters" showed a flair for highly original lyrics backed by decent piano chops. One wants to hear to hear more of Detor, and to hear her relax into the material.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478, or email him at

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Garrison Keillor's last name and misspelled a word that described Krista Detor's songs. This version has been corrected.

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