Howe Gelb demands a little effort from the listener: imperfection is a glorious thing, and Gelb does it far better than most. Gelb made his name as frontman for Arizona heroes Giant Sand in the early Eighties. They almost single-handedly kick-started the alt.country revolution with their mix of stark, distorted, staccato guitar licks, self-deprecating lyrics, and delta-blues-meets-country undertones.
He still occasionally goes under that guise, with a revolving cast of band mates, but has also travelled the world as a solo artist, guitar slung over his tall, lean frame, making new friends wherever he lays his dusty hat. Gelb's solo albums have followed a similar haphazard path to Giant Sand's.
On albums such as Confluence (2001) and The Listener (2003) he just about held it together, even though he lost close friend and fellow troubadour Rainer Ptacek (he dedicates "The Farm" to him tonight) to a brain tumour, and Giant Sand were dropped by V2. It's enough to make any man question his chosen path, but Gelb has hit back with 'Sno Angel Like You, a charming (in the best sense of the word) collaboration with the Canadian gospel choir Voices of Praise.
He's with nine of these on the first night of his UK tour, at Bristol's Trinity Centre. The fact that's it's a converted ecclesiastical church is apt. Gelb sports a grey trilby over his greying iron locks. Think Pulp Fiction, Tucson, Arizona-style, and replace gun with guitar.
The choir file in and Gelb launches into "Love Knows (No Borders)", the languid blues riff and his somnolent delivery contrasting beautifully with the gospel voices. He's joined variously by bass, slide guitar, drums, and Hammond organ, but the focal point is always the dynamic between beauty and beast, or as Gelb himself puts it, combining "the muck I make with the dizzying effect of the glorious sound [the choir] makes."
"Paradise Here Abouts", with its shuffling beat and Canned Heat-style blues lick, sounds far more cohesive live. The mix is inspired. "Are you longing for infiltration somewhere under the radar in the tarnation..." Gelb's voice is somewhere between Dylan's off-tune drawl and Tom Waits's gargled witticism.
They try a new tune, "Ballad of the Tucson Two", about a controversial ongoing court case, which is messy but fun. However, the evening's biggest highlights are a rousing version of "That's How Things Get Done" and "Get to Leave". All in all, a phenomenal performance that far exceeded expectations.Reuse content