Howe Gelb – New Release – The Coincidentalist

Read about the enigmatic Howe Gelb’s new album ‘The Coincidentalist’

 

Howe Gelb

The Coincidentalist

(New West Records)

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I have a sizable section of my record collection devoted to Howe Gelb.  I tried to file his alter egos separately (Giant Sand, Giant Giant Sand (sic), The Band of… Blacky Ranchette, Arizona Amp & Alternator, Friends Of Dean Martinez, OP8), but now they are all filed under “Howe Gelb” – it’s just easier to find this way.

I saw him live in 2007 at The Northcote Social Club in Melbourne Australia.  Just before the curtains were opened, we heard this familiar tune.  As the curtains moved, he commenced with the keyboards and proclaimed with glee that he had just then worked out how to play “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.  At one point during the set he was playing the keyboard with the end of his guitar.  I marvelled that night at seeing this audacious, important and quirky performer that I had followed closely since the mid 1980s.

Howe Gelb has a new album – The Coincidentalist.

“The Coincidentalist is someone who can read the coincidences but who doesn’t try to figure out their meaning.  For if one tries to figure out the meaning it will be lost.  The coincidences aren’t there to figure out but to point the way.” – Howe Gelb

The Coincidentalist marks the New West Records debut of Howe Gelb, the freewheeling luminary whose three decades of voluminous recording with his category-busting band Giant Sand have forged a legend of Southwestern American roots – punk and international prominence.  The album culminates thirty years of restless creative work by Gelb, a Pennsylvania flood evacuee who relocated to Tucson in 1972.

After meeting up in 1976, Giant Sandworms began in 1980 with his close friend Rainer Ptacek, the renowned slide guitarist.  That group morphed into beloved genre benders Giant Sand in 1983.  Giant Sand’s incarnation in the ‘90s included Joey Burns and John Convertino, who went on to form the acclaimed and much-loved unit Calexico.  Gelb says of the sources of his sunstruck music, “I always thought there was a similar attitude between Thelonious Monk, Neil Young, and Clint Eastwood, but I could never articulate why.  I was drawn to those guys early – there was something about the way they did things.”  Whether as Giant Sand, Howe Gelb or any number of other above-mentioned group rubrics, the shape-shifting, ever-evolving musician has issued a long run of indefinable and influential recordings ranging from punk and roots – rock to jazz, gospel and even traditional Spanish music.

Aside from his own venerable catalogue of “erosion rock” as he likes to call it, Gelb discovered M. Ward and Grandaddy along the way, releasing the former’s debut album on his own little label.  Gelb explains, “Giant Sand becomes this collection of dudes that I hang with for a season – a season can be a few years or a decade.  When I go solo, it’s a different palette; it’s an open palette. I can be free enough to get anyone new.”

Produced and recorded by Gelb largely in his home base of Tucson, at Wavelab studio and Harvey Moltz’s studio, his latest solo album is somewhere between the musician’s 40th and 50th, but don’t ask him how many records he’s made, because he’s not sure.  Gelb is the principal vocalist and plays guitar, piano, and chimes.  His band on this record is made up of guitarist M. Ward, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Giant Sand bassist and all-round co-conspirator Thøger Tetens Lund.  Gelb’s friends, Scottish singer KT Tunstall (whose most recent album Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon was co-produced by Gelb), Bonnie Prince Billy (a/k/a off- center Americana songsmith Will Oldham), violinist Andrew Bird, and pedal steel guitarist John Rauhouse all make appearances on the album.

One track’s intro/outro features Spanish flamenco musicians Juan Fernandez Panky, Lin Cortés, and Anil Fernandez, who collaborated with Gelb on his foray into gypsy folk on his 2010 album Alegrias.  Since the turn of the millennium, Gelb had recorded and performed increasingly in Europe, and spent an increasing amount of time in Denmark, his wife’s home country.  But he rediscovered his creative roots in his hometown last year.  “I fell back in love with the scene in Tucson,” Gelb says.  “The new crop of inspirational players and songwriters are in such abundance.  They have a particular sizzle.”  But he appears to be at a loss in explaining his own original connection there.

HoweGelb-PR2-Jane Mingay-72dpi“I tend to believe it’s the stuff that’s already inside you that makes living in a certain place comfortable.  Something about the place agrees with your sensibilities.  I think I just like how uncluttered it is there, because things always clutter up in my head.  To be in a place that’s so empty and minimal – that’s what suits me.”  Although The Coincidentalist was recorded in the desert, a fortuitous circumstance brought Gelb together with New West A&R executive Gary Briggs far from home.  “When I was returning home from my last European solo tour” Gelb recalls.  “As fate would have it, I got sick, so I had to push my flight back.  I was getting on the plane, and I heard a voice behind me, and it was Gary Briggs.  He introduced himself, just as we were going through security, connecting in London.  And there were four security lines, so fate had put us together in the same line.  And I just turned to him and said ‘Well, you should be putting out my new record.’  We were on the same flight, and it was like a ten-hour meeting, with him all jet-lagged and me with the flu.  By the time we landed, we knew we were right for each other.”

Gelb’s collaborators on the album are a mix of old colleagues and comparatively recent creative allies.  He first met Andrew Bird during a joint tour with Kristin Hersh a decade ago, while Jon Rauhouse has been a longtime accompanist of another Gelb mate, Neko Case.  He vividly recalls his first encounter with Oldham, who shares the vocals on the album’s lead off track “Vortexas” (Gelb’s term for Tucson).  “After 9/11 we did this huge Barbican show and then again something similar in New York” Gelb says.  “I met Will, and he kissed me on the lips.  That made an impression!  I had heard his records for years, and they’d always grabbed me.  The idea with ‘Vortexas’ was for the song to be homage to the Merle Haggard – George Jones album A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine.  Billy Sherrill’s production on that always blew my mind.  Will understood the idea.”

Gelb has only recently begun working with Tunstall, with whom he was partnered on a singer – songwriter tour set up and hosted by Robyn Hitchcock, with Martin and Eliza Carthy, and Krystle Warren.  “We just hit it off” he says.  “I didn’t have any preconceived notions of her.  I really liked the way she handled a song, and her voice! – I’m a sucker for a really soulful voice.”  Two of the album’s most potent tracks – the piano instrumental “Instigated Chimes” and “Picacho Peak” – were cut solo by Gelb at home, where he records live to CD through an old four – channel mixing console formerly owned by Jonathan Richman.  Gelb says of the latter number, “It’s a kind of lyric writing I’ve been enjoying more and more lately. You’re in a slipstream and you don’t know what you’re writing about, and then at some point it comes around to you, in the middle of recording or the middle of putting something down. It’s – what’s the word? – a rumination.”

At this stage in his life, after years of ping ponging between the desert and Europe, Gelb is putting a renewed focus on the U.S and hoping for his global scattering to come to a rest.  “After three decades delivering some kind of American music mash up to all parts of the globe like a sonic ambassador, it feels like I’ve taken the long way home, settling now in to my own undiscovered country,” he says. “  Which is ok. I’m always late.

Looks like I need to find more room in my CD shelves under “Howe Gelb”.

 

Read about the enigmatic Howe Gelb’s new album ‘The Coincidentalist’

Read about the enigmatic Howe Gelb’s new album ‘The Coincidentalist’

Read about the enigmatic Howe Gelb’s new album ‘The Coincidentalist’

Read about the enigmatic Howe Gelb’s new album ‘The Coincidentalist’

Read about the enigmatic Howe Gelb’s new album ‘The Coincidentalist’

Read about the enigmatic Howe Gelb’s new album ‘The Coincidentalist’

Read about the enigmatic Howe Gelb’s new album ‘The Coincidentalist’

 

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Author: Rob Dickens

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