Holiday Hootenanny, Club Congress, Dec. 23

It was telling that Howe Gelb stuck to the sidelines while performing at Club Congress last Friday. One of the pioneers of Tucson independent music, the prolific and ever-inventive singer-songwriter has done as much as anyone in these parts to put the Old Pueblo on the musical map—but he obviously recognizes the vitality of younger acts as well.

Even when singing and performing during his own set at the multi-act concert dubbed Holiday Hootenanny, Gelb graciously ceded center stage to younger compatriots such as Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan and Jon Villa. But when Gelb and company performed, the results sounded authentically like the Giant Sand of the late 1980s and early '90s—gloriously ramshackle, but with confident excursions into alt-country, jagged rock, a little cocktail jazz and Latin music. It helped that the lineup also featured drummer Tom Larkins and bassist Thøger T. Lund, both veterans of Giant Sand iterations from different eras.

During the holidays, the club and lobby at Hotel Congress can turn into Homecoming Central, as many former Tucsonans making seasonal visits reunite with old pals. Such was the case on this night.

Amid the hugs and toasts, the music was uniformly excellent. The evening began with Acorn Bcorn, the sister duo that is one of Tucson's best musical acts. I was dismayed to discover, when showing up fashionably late, that the show started close to on time, and I'd missed them. I won't be tardy next time.

I arrived in time to hear the relatively new Phoenix band Make My Baby, featuring Lonna Kelley, and was treated to a pleasant surprise: a low-fi blend of proto-garage, girl-group pop and bubblegum rock, wrapped around tragic torch songs delivered by three female singers performing in close harmony. Two of the ladies played standup drums, and a couple of fellas held down the lead guitar and bass slots. The group was terrific—and they threw Christmas presents to the audience!

Lopez and Sullivan turned in equally inspiring performances with their respective groups—lush, string-seasoned rock by the former, and large-scale Latin-gypsy music by the latter. Both artists performed material from new albums expected soon, making the show a hint of good things to come in 2012.

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