Nino’s Steakhouse once sat on a sad stretch of North First Avenue. “Not just for Cowboys
...” read their logo’s tagline. Yet there were plenty of pointy-toed cowboy boots on feet of regulars and barflys, but most of those never once walked anywhere near cow dung pastures or stepped into a saddle stirrup.
This steakhouse was a spawning ground for the post-punk Tucson music scene in the early ’80s, and probably the birthplace of post-punk’s petulant bastard child “desert rock.” Here, in this restaurant by day, sweaty music incubator by night, I saw singer-songwriter/producer Howe Gelb performing with the Giant Sandworms for the first time.
It takes years for a worthy artist to find and develop their voice. And Gelb is unequivocally a tenacious artist. He started humbly, playing the low-ceilinged backroom at Nino’s to a handful of people.
It’d be egregiously remiss to not acknowledge and commend Gelb’s musical evolution and prolific output—one could easily stay up for a couple of days straight, fueled by caffeine, and still not have listened to all of the songs that Gelb has written and recorded or played on—that spans a three-decade long career. Dude’s insanely accomplished. His is staggering body of work, and it’s easy to lose count; some 50 albums, which include critically acclaimed records such as 1998’s Hisser
, 2000’s Chore of Enchantment
, 2006’s Sno’ Angel Like You
, 2008’s ProVisions
and 2013’s The Coincidentalist.
Gelb has also been featured in numerous films: Drunken Bees
(1996), Looking for a Thrill: An Anthology of Inspiration
(2005), High and Dry: Where the Desert Meets Rock and Roll
(2006), This Band Has No Members
(2006) and Ingenious
There is a tree of life whose fruit-heavy branches span far and wide with Gelb comprising the roots and trunk: Giant Sandworms, Giant Sand, The Band of Blacky Ranchette, Rainer & Das Combo, Friends of Dean Martinez, John Convertino, Joey Burns, Arizona Amp and Alternator, OP8, Calexico, Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan are but some of the fruit.
In addition, Gelb has twisted lots of knobs, even co-produced Scottish singer/songwriter KT Tunstall’s fifth studio album Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon
(2013) on which he also co-wrote and sang on several songs. Gelb produced Sylvie the great 2014 debut album by Sylvie Simmons esteemed writer, former editor at Mojo and biographer who penned I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen
(published by Ecco in 2012). He did John Doe’s latest.
At 8:25 p.m. last Saturday night (Oct. 22), the stage lights of the Rialto Theater began to sweep and dial in as Howe Gelb walked onto the stage. The show, billed as Howe Gelb's 60th Birthday Yip: with Special Guests Giant Sand, John Doe & Exene Cervenka, Scout Niblett, Sylvia Simmons
was scheduled to start sharply at 8 p.m. But hey, what the hell, it was Gelb’s birthday he can be late if he wants to. Many in attendance, who’d been seated patiently, rose eagerly from their seats and flocked to the front of the stage. The turnout for the event, as per the usher scanning Ticketfly tickets at the door, was approximately 150, mighty thin for a hometown hero on a bill that featured a few legends. But this was largely an older crowd. And judging by the way they scurried when Gelb was first glimpsed stepping out from stage left to take his place at the microphone, these were true believers. Disciples.
Gelb was relaxed, his delivery informal, as he addressed the audience. “What do you guys want to do tonight?” He's a master at creating intimacy, no doubt learned from his 30-plus years touring the world. It was like we were in his big living room and we were a bunch of his old friends.
“I may not remember the lyrics to all of these songs ... but feel free to shout them out. I’ll sing as much as I can remember.” And so it began, Gelb took to the upright piano, to play a couple of “standards,” before bringing out the band.
What followed was nothing short of a retrospective providing an overview, for diehard fans and the uninitiated alike, of Gelb’s career. Embracing jazz-like improvisation, Gelb has often relied on first takes to capture lightning in a bottle. And when the mojo is just right ... it's sheer magic. “We don't believe in rehearsing ... it's an act against nature,” Gelb at one point quipped. But when your band consists of Brian Lopez and Gabriel Sullivan on guitars and vocals, Thøger Lund on bass and Winston Watson sitting behind the kit, it sure makes things a whole lot safer to be spontaneous.
The evening was filled with performances featuring cameo appearances by various musicians and alt stars taken from different chapters in the life and music of Howe Gelb: Tommy Larkins (drums), Neil Harry (pedal steel), Maggie Bjorklund (pedal steel), Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth and current recording drummer for Sun Kil Moon), Tom Walbank (harmonica), John Convertino (drums), Lana Kelly (vocals), John Diaz (trumpet), Annie “Sister Town” Dolan (guitar), Scott Garber (bass) and Gelb’s lovely daughter Patsy Gelb (who sang harmony vocals with her dad). Between songs Gelb proudly announced that his daughter, after earning her BFA from Pacific Northwest College of Art, has been working as a costumier on the IFC series Portlandia
, much to Ms. Gelb’s chagrin.
Before the beguiling Sylvie Simmons took to the stage to perform, Gelb said, as part of her introduction, “She is British by genetics but chooses to live in SF.” Writer Glyn Brown accurately wrote that Simmons was like “Marianne Faithfull’s grazed, rueful daughter telling fragile stories of heartbreak.” With her ukulele, Simmons delivered to an appreciative audience exactly that, and charmingly.
After Simmons’ set, clearly enjoying himself and in high spirits, Gelb produced a glass of bacanora
—an agave-derived liquor made exclusively in the Mexican state of Sonora which was bootlegged by contrabandistas
for generations until it became legal in 1992—with which to offer up a toast to celebrate the occasion, “Elations!”
Next, Scout Niblett, remarkable minimalist English singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist performed solo on electric guitar and delivered a morose at times aggressive set punctuated by dramatic shifts in dynamics, tempo and texture.
Then came John Doe and Exene Cervenka of now-legendary X. They performed acoustic versions of songs like “Burning House of Love” and “Because I Said I Do,” and their harmonies complemented each other smoothly, and never sounded better. The crowd responded in kind.
The night peaked when Doe, joining Gelb et al for the last set, introduced “Drink Of Water.” The tune is off John Doe’s The Westerner
, which was recorded at Tucson’s Wavelab Studios and co-produced by Gelb. It’s dedicated to author Michael Blake, best known for the film adaptation of his novel Dances With Wolves.
From the moment badass drummer Winston Watson clicked the song off with his sticks, setting the tempo, there was no turning back. On the studio recording, “Drink Of Water” is a scorcher by anyone's measure—especially by those of us weaned on X’s Under the Big Black Sun
—but performed live by a band of this caliber with a shot or two of Mexican moonshine coursing through their veins … “Dear God, Mother Mary and the entire Celestial Court,” from the downbeat the effect was like deploying a napalm bomb inside the Rialto Theatre, radiating in waves with the repetition of every hooky verse and chorus, burning everything in its path. Unabashedly, fucking incendiary.
Happy 60th, Howe Gelb. “Elations!” You sure know how to throw a party, mate.