TVD Live: Howe Gelb
at the Black Cat, 1/11

The desert is a strange place. It attracts weird loners, mad prophets (Moses and Charles Manson come to mind), and people—and my friend Philip used to be one of them—whose idea of a great time (and it does sound like a great time) is to take lots of LSD, haul a bunch of old appliances to an isolated arroyo, and shoot the fuck out of them (or better yet, blow ‘em up!) with an assortment of high-powered firearms. To say nothing of that horse with no name in that dumb America song, which Randy Newman said was “about a kid who thinks he’s taken acid.”

It is also a place of visionaries, musical visionaries included. Like Howe Gelb, the indie rock/alt-country/jazz genius behind Giant Sand, or sometimes Giant Giant Sand, and originally the Giant Sandworms, which I was once attacked by (the worms, not the band) and was lucky to escape with my life. Since the mid-eighties, Gelb and a constantly shifting cast of like-minded collaborators have been making music that is as hard to describe as it is a pleasure to hear. The list of guest musicians who have worked with Giant Sand is as lengthy as it is impressive, and the band’s long-time rhythm section went on to help found Calexico.

Gelb is a prolific mofo—add to the 27 or so LPs Giant Sand has released since 1985 the number of solo records (some 21) he has put out since 1991, and you’ve got a sum that exceeds the number of Japanese Zeros America’s top fighter ace Dick Bong (great name!) shot down during WWII, which is a fun fact you can use to impress your friends or parole officer. I’ve listened to all of them, and they’re all brilliant—okay, so I haven’t—but they could still be, each and every one of them, the greatest album you’ve ever heard, better even than the Pilot album you love so much with “Magic” on it.

Gelb’s latest release, 2013’s The Coincidentalist, really is brilliant, and includes the magical and lovely “The 3 Deaths of Lucky” (with vocals by Gelb and KT Tunstall), the perky “Unforgivable,” the off-kilter and wonderful “Triangulate,” and the mystical and haunted “Picacho Peak,” to say nothing of the wonderful “Vortexas,” on which Gelb swaps vocals with Will Oldham. Gelb has the idiosyncratic habit of beginning a song like it’s going to be raucous only to completely switch tracks, which I disliked at first but have come to love. And I could quibble about closing track “Instigated Chimes,” a full-out lounge jazz workout featuring piano and standup bass, but there’s no denying it’s pretty swank even if it isn’t my cup of rebop.

Anyway, Gelb played the Black Cat on Saturday, January 11, ironically the 35th anniversary of my first arrest for drunk and disorderly, and if you were smart you were there because Gelb is a singular performer who what’s more hasn’t showed his sun-weathered mug in D.C. in some two decades. So to say it was a special event—the guy’s a legend, the Godfather of alt-country—is an understatement.

I missed the opening act because I got waylaid by a bona fide desert prophet—a wizened old man with a long white beard in a flowing robe cinched at the waist with a rope. He blocked my egress and said, “Behold, a burning bush!” whereupon he set on a boxwood shrub minding its own business (as shrubbery tends to do), doused it with a metal can of gasoline, and set it alight. “That’s not a miracle,” I said, “That’s arson.” He responded by hurling the gas can at my skull and scoring a direct hit, knocking me unconscious. The burning bush was no miracle but that toss certainly was, and when I came to the prophet was standing over me. “I smote thee good, eh?” he asked, smiling. “Hey, want to see another miracle?” I ran for my life. Desert prophets are dangerous people.

Unfortunately I arrived at the Black Cat, with a headache like John Bonham playing the drum solo from “Moby Dick” inside my skull, to find that Gelb and band (Giant Sanders Gabriel Sullivan on guitar and drums and Thøger Lund on standup bass) were already performing. What? They went on early? Who goes on early? Whatever happened to make the suckers wait? Even sadder, the show was too brief and a disappointment, with Gelb doing more talking than playing. Worst of all, the live versions of his tunes didn’t come close to measuring up to the recorded versions.

Furthermore, nobody—including the band themselves—seemed to know what songs they played, so a couple of the numbers shall have to remain as mysterious as the ancient piano Gelb found backstage in a place where, in his words, “Nobody who ever works here ever saw it before.” In his cryptic way he then went on to describe the piano as “more than neglected, resurrected.” He spent a lot of time talking about that piano, and his kid’s sneakers, and at one point went into a riff about his guitar saying, “Is there a buzz in there? Is it underlying? Is it underlying everything we do?” In short, Gelb is a philosopher, as he proved when he said “Planning insults the future” and, apropos of his drinking half a scotch before the show and the other half after the show, “When you’re old you have to cultivate odd habits. Otherwise people don’t trust you.”

In between all this chatter, and long interactions with people from the audience, Gelb and band found time to play “Vortexas,” which proved to be the highlight of the night. Sitting at that resurrected piano he sang in a conversational tune, banging out lovely chords while Sullivan and Lund provided quirky accompaniment. I could use “quirky” to describe the whole show, from Gelb’s chatter to every one of the songs, which featured sudden modulations in volume, odd zigs and zags in construction, and sudden veers from tunefulness to dissonance and back.

Also good was “Chunk of Coal,” a sad and relatively straightforward—in the Gelbsian Universe, anyway—number with subtle jazz undertones. The drumming and bass were low key, while Gelb made beautiful music on that haunted piano. “Everything she touches turns to gold,” sang Gelb, before singing “You don’t miss your water/Till the well runs dry,” a line he borrowed from a song by country soul legend William Bell, which was later covered by The Byrds on Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

Gelb is a great pianist, but he did some amazing things with the guitar too. On “Triangulate,” which suffered from the lack of the female chorus that gives it its perk, he achieved a wah-wah sound that wasn’t’ a wah-sound (if that makes any sense), while on “We Don’t Play Tonight,” an up-tempo but dissonant tune, he somehow made his guitar sound like a harmonica. I actually looked for the harmonica, but no one was playing harmonica, that is unless the harmonica industry has come up with an invisible harmonica. And Gelb played a great solo, alternating that uncanny harmonica sound with harsher, deeper notes.

On the very jazzy “Not the End of the World” Gelb sang, “So bring on the end/That sweet, bittersweet hereafter” and a dissonant bass and piano interlude was followed by an equally dissonant bass and drums interlude. Meanwhile, the relatively fast-paced “Paradise Here Abouts,” which also suffered from the lack of the female chorus that gives the recorded version an almost gospel feel, began with Gelb noodling absentmindedly on the acoustic guitar, tossing off odd series of notes, until the drums and bass kicked in. “Welcome to paradise,” he sang, then “the current can be cunnin’/If you drift too far from red shore light/Get back to paradise.”

And that’s about all I’ve got. The band played a jazzy instrumental I’ve searched their recordings for in vain, and a song with a rolling guitar, a long solo like no solo I’ve ever heard before, and Gelb singing “Get your house in order” that I’ve also searched for in vain. But they didn’t play “The 3 Deaths of Lucky” or “Unforgivable” or “Running Behind” off the new LP, and they might have played 10 songs tops and they weren’t long songs by any means, and they didn’t even stick around to play an encore, and frankly I left one unhappy camper. Henceforth I’ll stick to Gelb’s LPs, although it’s likely a moot point because if history is any indication Howe probably won’t be back in D.C. before 2034, at which point I’ll likely be in a rock critic rest home annoying the nurses with my wrongheaded opinions on albums released 59 years before.

And as if all that isn’t bad enough, I talked to Sullivan and Lund afterwards, and upon finding out the latter was from Denmark I said, I kid you not, “I’ve never met a Denmarkian before.” I knew it wasn’t a word the minute it escaped my lips, so I made things worse by saying, “Uh, Denmarker.” At this point they were both looking at me like I was mad, and Sullivan finally put me out of my misery by saying, “I think the word you’re looking for is Dane.” At which point I skulked away, muttering, “It must have been that blow I took to the head. Yeah, that’s it. The gasoline can. Goddamn all desert prophets. Really, I can’t be that stupid, can I? It’s impossible, right? Right?”

It’s possible.

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