San Francisco Bathhouse
October 25 | Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Howe Gelb made sure the audience knew Howe is pronounced with only one syllable. He’s probably had to correct a fair few people in his career. His voice sounds like Jack Nicholson, a sneery, effortlessly cool timbre. He looks the part too, a carefree cap and comfortable clothes somehow transposing itself onto a magnetic stage presence. A legendary figure within indie music, he was part of the seminal group Giant Sand, out of whose collective ashes were formed bands such as Calexico. Nowadays, it’s hard to differentiate between Giant Sand and Howe Gelb’s solo work, but it doesn’t really matter. Gelb has been in a decades long quest to remain unclassifiable, ranging from being dubbed the “godfather of alt. country” to explosive guitar indie god to jazz pianist. This was transferred over to his performance: a very loose, improvised set punctuated by digressions, glimpses of his acerbic wit, sharp lyrics, crowd sing-a-longs and some great songs.

The night was opened by banjo-drone (?) artist Manimanima. The childish name (and slight similarity in name to Menomena) doesn’t really prepare for what he affectionately introduced as “banjo torture”. He sounded like Scott Walker transposing all his later music onto a banjo. Or maybe minimalist gurgling. Or what would happen if a Dock Boggs shellac was looped over and over again. It was arresting stuff, people were too frightened not applaud him. To be fair I’ve never been so scared of the banjo before, and I’ve seen Deliverance. The audience were startled too, not sure whether he was a joke or entirely serious, and many were grimacing at the unconventionality of it all (having never met him before, I presume Manimanima would approve). I must say, although I had a visceral reaction to want to go outside, I found him an entirely unique experience, and the masochist in me looks forward to hearing him again.

But it was Howe Gelb, the reasonably sized audience was there to see. He shuffled onto stage, flitting between the piano and guitar, and fighting a neverending battle with the lights and his guitar pedals. He complimented Wellington on being a “sensible” city (he had played here before quite recently), and despite being from McCain’s home state of Arizona, he sneered ‘do you know anyone voting McCain?” to an audience member asking him about his presidential views. He started with ‘The Hanging Judge’ but broke that off a few bars in because he wanted to play something older – a carefree approach typical of his set. He played the guitar similar to Hendrix, with his thumb acting as a bass guitar. His piano-work was sterling too, hammering away at a piano that was so new that the instruction manual was sitting on it the whole performance (he also got promoter Jim Rush up onstage to accompany him at the end). Instrumentals merged with explosive guitar work, his set a model of unpredictability.

He put up with a fair bit of heckling, dealing it with all with an abundance of humour. He didn’t really want to play an encore, preferring to have a beer instead. He relented, jokingly, launching into Lou Reed’s ‘Satellite of Love’ getting the audience to sing the chorus. The crowd were too scared to sing the David Bowie part at the end though, much to Gelb’s disappointment. He then proceeded to mash up ‘Hey Jude’ with ‘Ring of Fire’. His extensive career and bunch of friends meant he could (and did) go anywhere. What the set lacked in terms of structure, it made up for in terms of charm and ability. A formidable presence armed with a few decades worth of killer songs, and he didn’t disappoint.