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Howe Gelb - Luminaire, London, 4/10/2009

  by Anthony Middleton

published: 8 / 10 / 2009

Howe Gelb - Luminaire, London, 4/10/2009


At the London Luminaire, Anthony Middleton watches Howe Gelb manage to pull off the rare trick of being both consumately entertaining and also genuinely experimental and inspirational

One the defining characteristics of the 1970s was the space; the time before our lives became overrun with information, noise and other distractions. Even car chases were slow compared to now. So contends Howe Gelb, who knows something about space, hailing from the Arizona desert. And this finds its counterpart in his performance; uncluttered, mercurial and hard to grasp. There is sparseness, even desolation, about this sound that one can imagine being inspired by the miles of unyielding desert With its insistence on total silence, the Luminaire is the perfect environment for Gelb. The acres of silence that frame his husky, conspiratorial whisper and restrained guitar, are, gloriously, not filled by chatter. Gelb only then goes to undermine this unique policy by encouraging the audience to talk during a couple of keyboard instrumentals, saying they work better as background music. After some nervous trepidation, fearful of retribution from the Luminaire powers, the crowd do indeed talk and the whole thing works wonderfully. This improvisation kind of sums Howe Gelb up. He asks for the mirror ball to be turned on, then off, the house lights on, he sings an off the cuff cover of 'A Whiter Shade of Pale', struggling to remember the chord progression and lyrics as he goes, asking the crowd to contribute the organ solo. He talks. A lot. But it is not quite inter-song banter, rather a natural consequence of his meandering style. His singing and talking voices are not a million miles apart and he often dovetails the chat to the song with only a modest strum to signal the change. The talk may not always be full of gravitas. The quality of charity shops in Bath, regretting having his guitar autographed and of the inability of a Spanish audience to understand his lyrics all feature, though it is the delivery and the intimacy which keeps the audience’s rapt attention. Gelb looks rather like a slightly younger version of Dylan, with his arch, waspish looks and Errol Flynn goatee. Anyone who has listened mesmerised by the links in 'Theme Time Radio Hour' will see similarities with Gelb’s riffing style. Indeed, one can imagine him as a late night radio DJ, comforting the tortured souls of the desert with his own unique mix of bluesy crooning. When he is singing, he bears more of a resemblance to Lou Reed or Leonard Cohen than Dylan. Most like Cohen is the playfulness aligned with dryly intelligent, quick witted lyrics. The show is split into two one-hour sets; the first solely with guitar, the second mainly on piano. Gelb is much taken by the possibilities of the Yamaha electric piano that has been provided for him and plays with its bells and whistles with all the enthusiasm of someone trying out their new Bontempi organ on Christmas morning. With the keyboard, he seems to owe more to a West Coast cocktail lounge sometime in the 40s than more the more usual inspirations for Americana such as folk and blues. Dylan or Cohen on the guitar; Tom Waits on the piano perhaps. Either way, Gelb confesses that getting older encourages him to use chords that he would have considered stuffy in his youth. The set goes back to the early days of Giant Sand whilst also including numbers from the recent 'proVisions' album, ending on a medley that appeared to be based solely on what members of the audience requested. Gelb is a smooth operator to be sure, though not in the sense that he is slick. Both times I have seen him, he has seemed to be deciding what to do as he goes along. In a less charismatic hands, this would be a disaster; the lack of structure would lose most audiences. Gelb, however, really is one of a kind. To manage to combine being a consummate entertainer with being genuinely experimental and inspirational is a rare thing indeed.

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Howe Gelb - Luminaire, London, 4/10/2009

Howe Gelb - Luminaire, London, 4/10/2009

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Gathered (2019)
Off-kilter but haunting lounge jazz on new solo album from former Giant Sand frontman Howe Gelb
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