Howe Gelb at Islington Assembly Hall
How do you describe an artist like Howe Gelb? Perhaps idiosyncratic, enigmatic and unknowable. Gelb is also an intensely engaging, benign and charming virtuoso. A Tucson, Arizona native, we often hear of him mentioned as a stalwart of the alt-country or Americana movement. To define him as such, though, is to ignore the extent to which Gelb is an ever-evolving, ever-searching, ever-improvising musician.
Gelb sings: “You’d think by now my eyes’d learnt to see more than they actually do” on Wild Dog Waltz – the second song performed tonight – and in this line, we can get to the heart of his music. He is, if you will, an old-timer who refuses to settle for what is superficial. Tonight’s show – his only UK date in support of last year’s The Coincidentalist – at Islington Assembly Hall is a relatively rare and welcome opportunity to see Gelb on these shores.
While this is essentially a solo show, he is accompanied for much of the set by the Dane Thøger Tetens Lund on double bass and fellow Tucson songwriter Gabriel Sullivan on drums and guitar. Onstage Gelb cuts a confident, wry and warm figure. He is struck by the size of this beautiful old hall. “Cavernous,” he says in his deep, sardonic whisper between songs. In truth, it’s probably not the most appropriate venue in which to see a performer like Gelb, but he is old enough and wise enough to own it nonetheless. We are treated to much of his dry yet terrific humour at various points in the set. Sitting down at the keyboard he welcomes us to “part two of tonight’s opera. It’s not a proper opera. More like an operation.”
Those less familiar with Gelb’s work with his ever-changing band Giant Sand would have been surprised tonight by the heavier electric songs in the set. The performance is at its most engaging, though, on the stripped back songs, when we can appreciate the ingenuity and poetry of his words.
He closes the encore with Picacho Peak from The Coincidentalist, which features some of his most heart-rending lyrics – “When I was a child my daddy taught me how to steer with my knee. Since he left this world hasn’t felt right, all the endless hours appear so finite.” It’s enough to bring a tear to the eye. For Gelb, words are strange. They’re important, but they’re also funny. They’re meaningless, but they’re all we have to create meaning, feeling, and art.
Photos: Guifré de Peray
For further information and future events visit Howe Gelb’s website here.
Watch a live performance of Unforgivable here: