Howe Gelb, St George's, Bristol

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The Independent Culture

Some performers prepare for a show by taking a nap or doing a little light meditation. The Arizonan singer-songwriter and legend Howe Gelb went to see Lost in Translation instead. He seemed to take some of the actor Bill Murray's cultivated air of jet-lagged alienation away with him, too. Either that or he really was off with the fairies. "I'm looking for the future of rock," Gelb announced from the prow of the stage at the start of his set, then he walked over to a CD Walkman on top of the piano and began playing tracks from his works-in-progress. "No, that's not it," he'd say, skipping to another track, as the audience became increasingly nonplussed. "Ah, nervous laughter," he said. We laughed nervously.

Maybe Gelb was deconstructing the tired rituals of the artist-audience relationship. Maybe he was stoned. Whatever the case, by the end of the show he had us all in the palm of his hand. The grand, imposing hall seemed to shrink to the size of a front parlour or porch as Gelb took requests. Except, he couldn't remember any of his songs. "Sometimes they come so fast, you don't have time to learn them," he said, in that trademark Western drawl.

It's the charm of the voice and the lean and hungry, Gary Cooper-as-cosmic-cowboy looks that captivate as much as the music - what there was of it. Yet little miracles of grace did occur, as when Gelb played the piano in a mock-primitive, Monkian style: a version of "Wayfaring Stranger" somehow became "Fly Me to the Moon", and odd carnivalesque, plinky-plonky instrumentals intersected the few proper songs.

The CDs kept on coming, too. At one point, the machine played Miles Davis's theme from Lift to the Scaffold while Gelb and John Parrish, on drums, were engaged on a different tune entirely. However unlikely, it still sounded great.

Although the show always remained close to shambolic, there was strength in depth. What Gelb brings to the table, as well as eccentricity, is history. Founder of the indie-rock veterans Giant Sand (whose rhythm section went on to become Calexico) and creator of a whole mess of Tucson projects (The Friends of Dean Martinez, The Band of Blacky Ranchette, the Amor Belhom Duo, etc etc), Gelb has made strange music for 20-odd years. And he has the respect of his peers. At the Barbican's Beyond Nashville concert in 2002, Gelb played with a host of luminaries including Evan Dando and PJ Harvey, and convincingly stole the show.

Tonight, Harvey didn't show up, though Adrian Utley of Portishead was in the audience, and Robert Plant's name was on the guest list. In truth, there wasn't really room for them, and Parrish had to restrict his role to that of trusty foil. One Howe Gelb is enough for anybody.