3D Great Rock Bible
Howe Gelb iTunes Tracks Howe Gelb Official Website

Howe Gelb

+ {The Band Of… Blacky Ranchette} + {Arizona Amp and Alternator}

Virtually part two of the effervescent GIANT SAND saga, cactus-country crooner HOWE GELB (born 1956, Scranton, Pennsylvania) was also a masterful solo artist in his own right, having delivered over a dozen desert-rock sets, plus a handful by his other projects; The Band Of… The Blacky Ranchette and the all-too-brief Arizona Amp And Alternator, among them. Based from the mid-70s in Tucson, Arizona, GELB and a revolving-door cast of musicians struck a cord with the post-NEIL YOUNG/CRAZY HORSE sect, willing to maintain the spirit of an all-new, alt-country. From 1985’s `Valley Of Rain’ and 1986’s `Ballad Of A Thin Man’ to 2015’s `Heartbreak Pass’ (their 19th album approximately), GIANT SAND continued to mine a gap left by Paisley teamsters RAIN PARADE, The DREAM SYNDICATE, GREEN ON RED and The LONG RYDERS.
Sprouting an alter-ego through the eponymous LP, The band of… BLACKY RANCHETTE (1985) {*6} – released on cult French imprint New Rose – vocalist/guitarist/pianist Howe, drummer Tom Larkins, steel guitarist Rainer Ptacek and bassist Jacob Martinez could fire-up the bar-room country twangs he/they had to hide under the giant grains of ‘Sand. Of course, a GELB set without a NEIL YOUNG cover (this time through `Revolution Blues’) would not be a proper GELB set, although his own `Code Of The Road’, `Heartland’ and a 7-minute `Evil’, proved indie-country could survive in a fickle rock music world.
Adding steely Neil Harry and guest Paula Jean Brown (Howe’s then wife), Demon Records’ subsidiary Zippo spun out the band’s follow-up set, HEARTLAND (1986) {*6}. With an array of GIANT SAND-ers, Convertino, Harry, Larkins, his child Patsy Jean Gelb (on the `Indiosa’ song), et al, et al, the GRAM PARSONS-inspired SAGE ADVICE (1990) {*7} featured a duet with LUCINDA WILLIAMS on `Burning Desire’ and two covers: WAYLON JENNINGS’s `Trouble Man’ and Jimmy Davis’s `You Are My Sunshine’; all to counterbalance the effective and cool `Loving Cup’, `Outside An Angel’s Reach (3 6ixes)’ and the title track.
Subsequently squeezed between his prolific GIANT SAND deliveries with that of solo work, debut LP (“Incidental Music” was a limited-edition cassette from ‘83), DREADED BROWN RECLUSE (1991) {*6} allowed the mythic genius of HOWE GELB to experiment with his inner psyche and cow-punk extremities; spreading his hard-bitten flesh-eaters by way of “out-takes”: `Always Horses Coming’, the 8-minute `Bible Black, Book 2’ and `Loretta And The Insect World’.
Losing his old mucker Rainer Ptacek to cancer in November ’97, compounded GELB to cut a dozen or so further songs and vignettes on 1998’s HISSER {*4}. Though not his finest hour by a long chalk mark, the songs that felt complete were of interest, notably `Soldier Of Fortune’, `Catapult’ and `This Purple Child’, while the fragmented `Nico’s Little Opera’ and `Temptation Of Egg’ rounded up some loose ends from somewhere in his mind.
CONFLUENCE (2001) {*7} roped in his “heart of the goldrush” NEIL YOUNG imitations to a tee; `Pontiac Slipstream’ name-checking a few heroes, while the husky cover of the ELVIS song `Can’t Help Falling In Love’ was probably best suited on GIANT SAND’s glorious and forthcoming `Cover Magazine’ set of ‘02.
Bypassing a bootleg series, GIANT SAND upshots and sessions a-plenty, GELB was back in the firing line on the WAITS-versus-REED-like set, THE LISTENER (2003) {*7}. Augmented by second wife Sophie Albertsen, CALEXICO, The HANDSOME FAMILY and refresher GIANT SAND alumni from Denmark (where the record was cut), the casual, almost horizontal aspect of the songs came across on the jazz-country of `Felonious’, `Jason’s List’, `Torque (Tango De La Tongue)’ and `Blood Orange’.
Country & Western music always at the centre of his hillbilly heart, The BAND OF… BLACKY RANCHETTE re-grouped in 2003 for STILL LOOKIN’ GOOD TO ME {*6}. Intentionally off-kilter as if played by amateurs on a Grand Ole Opry night, Howe and his honky-tonk crew (including Larkins, Convertino, steel virtuoso Jon Rauhouse, NEKO CASE, RICHARD BUCKNER, Kurt Wagner, BOB NEUWIRTH, Paolo Russo, et al), his blend of lo-fi country excelled on `The Train Singer’s Song’, `Mope-A-Long Rides Again’ and a cover of the traditional `Working On The Railroad’.
Almost mislaid in a flurry of releases under his usual-suspect motifs, ARIZONA AMP and ALTERNATOR (2005) {*7}, re-charged Howe’s batteries, as it did that of contributors Aaron Burtch, Jim Fairchild and Jason Lytle (aka GRANDADDY) on `Talula And The Last Straw’, `Bottom Of The Barrel’ and a cover of TRAFFIC’s `Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys’. While M. WARD made a cameo, and there was Gelb’s Danish (‘Sand) crew aboard on a handful of re-worked pieces, the set was ever more graceful for highlighting Marie Frank on `Blue Blue Marble Girl’ and Henriette Sennenvalt on `Man On A String’.
Back at HOWE GELB’s Arizona ranch and surrounded by drummer Jeremy Gara (soon-to-be an ARCADE FIRE recruit), Hammond B-3 players Dave Draves and Mike Gibbs, slide man Fred Guignon, bassist Nick Augustine and guitarist Jim Bryson, ’SNO ANGEL LIKE YOU (2006) {*8} was more or less a collaboration with Canadian gospel choir Voices Of Praise. Tossing in a triumvirate of Ptacek numbers `Worried Spirits’, `The Farm’ and `That’s How Things Get Done’, everything sounded decidedly first-take, even a re-creation of (Ramp’s) `Neon Filler’.
From Thrill Jockey to England’s Fire Records, ALEGRIAS (2010) {*7} was credited to HOWE GELB & A BAND OF GYPSIES, a flamenco group – led by guitarist Raimundo Amador – he discovered while travelling through Spain. Supervised by JOHN PARRISH upon a rooftop in Cordoba, many acolytes of both GIANT SAND and the solo GELB would recognise re-imaginings of `4 Door Maverick’, `Uneven Light Of Day’, `Notoriety’, `Cowboy Boots On Cobble Stone’, etc., etc.
2013’s THE COINCIDENTALIST {*7} was the man’s inaugural album for New West (GIANT SAND’s `Heartbreak Pass’ arrived two years on). Looking sun-soaked and grey-haired sophisticated on the cover-shoot sleeve, this record introduced the all-female Silver Thread Trio, plus the lightly-brushed backing of bassist Thoger Lund (borrowed from GIANT SAND), lead guitarist M. WARD and ex-SONIC YOUTH sticksman Steve Shelley. Having only just produced Scots songsmith KT TUNSTALL on her desert highway Blue Note set, `Invisible Empire / Crescent Moon’, GELB was happy to install the lass as one of his star guests. Long-time-coming, there was also the unmistakable voice of BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY on opener `Vortexas’ and pedal steel from Jon Rauhouse (of The MEKONS) and a violin solo from ANDREW BIRD.
Never one – it seemed – to shirk from playing the father-figure, the spontaneous troubadour took a credited supporting role alongside young Viennese trio Radian on the collaborative and experimental `Radian Verses Howe Gelb’ (2014). No doubt we’ll be hearing more of Messrs Martin Siewert (guitar), John Norman (bass) and Martin Brandlmayr (drums).
Putting his GIANT SAND to bed in February 2016 after three decades, a romanticised GELB was free to explore his nostalgic nuances on FUTURE STANDARDS {*6}. Turning 60 might’ve convinced the desert-rock dude to turn lounge lizard/croaky crooner, but this set was hardly an inspirational re-birth to whet the appetite of his hard-bitten fanbase. Accompanied only by a piano, bass and peppered drums (not forgetting occasional off-kilter vocal interjections by Lonna Kelley), here, Howe interpreted not one old jazz standard, but re-invented a fifth wheel on his saloon-type DeLorean. Country Kelley shone a little light in Howe’s misted-up window, and in `Ownin’ It’, `Terribly So’ and `A Book You’ve Read Before’, there was substance. If the album was a film soundtrack, it’d be a re-make of `One From The Heart’ – begging pardon to TOM WAITS and CRYSTAL GAYLE.
© MC Strong/MCS Jun2015-Nov2016

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