You don’t go to ‘see’ Howe Gelb. You arrive at the same place he has and have a conversation.
Think of it in terms of a musical speed date. Gelb, avuncular and confident, throws out questions and pithy one-liners in the hope his nervous, rabbit-in-the-headlights would be partner will connect. On stage he paces from mic stand to keyboard and back, straps an acoustic on, fiddles with the tuning – the activity is fluid and random, as if all the electrons aren’t sure what they’re supposed to react with. A typically demure English audience isn’t up to speed with the dynamic. With the clock ticking down before we are asked to move on, Gelb’s questions go unanswered, often to his apparent amusement.
As relationships go, it doesn’t bode well; more a quick pint and a walk home alone rather than a future walk down the aisle. ‘We demand structure and normality!’ hangs in the air; where’s the songs, Howe? The response, if it were formalised, might be ‘Where’s the fun in that?’, and as we warm to the approach a stilted dialogue begins and the unframed wordplay becomes funnier, reciprocal; more human. It’s a mark of the man that the connection is important to him. Rather than perform to a crowd standing in tight rows facing him, he exhorts us to turn and face the person to our right or left, to engage in movement, to feel part of the conversation.
In-between, we get mellow acoustic blues, some that finishes, some that tails off as lyrics are forgotten; some interrupted because, well, he can. It’s unconventional and rather wonderful. A gravelly take on Mancini’s Moon River at the keyboard is a lovely antidote to the playfulness, though even that arrives with a joke about the lack of correct octaves and the instrument’s precarious position at the edge of the stage, all of it combined to create a sense of freedom, danger even, in the proceeds. A ten second burst of Emerson Lake and Palmer is evidence of the lack of boundaries.
Eventually, Gelb acknowledges his need to make a train for Paris and introduces Grant Lee Phillips to the stage. They construct a blues around Gelb’s packing up, the friendship and musical compatibility between them clear to see. A particular line from an earlier song stands out, how a song can be a suture; in terms of stitching an evening together, Gelb isn’t the cleanest surgeon, but he leaves the most interesting scar.
Grant Lee Phillips, perhaps best known in the UK for his 90s band Grant Lee Buffalo, is altogether more conventional, but in all the best ways. For all the semblance of structure, the ethos is similar to Gelb’s. Over four albums with the band and seven solo since, he’s honed his rough-hewn American blue-collar catalogue until the ratio of diamond to dirt is bountifully tipped toward the former.
These are songs carved from countless motel rooms and bar-stool dinners, dark roads and the freedom of moving on in the morning. It’s a world of Studebakers and woods where no-one goes, where lovers keep a .38 handy and dream of white weddings, a land of ripe fields, dry rivers and cold hearts. You can trace Phillip’s stories and characters back through Ryan Adams, Springsteen, Buckley, Cash, Jones and Seeger, and everything coalesces in the most expressive of voices, in fine form tonight across a range of songs and keys. Phillips is warmly received and appreciative of the audience, regularly acceding to their requests.
Along the way we get fantastic versions of Fuzzy, Stars N’ Stripes and one of the lost classics of the American songbook, Jupiter and Teardrop; ‘Just a girl who can’t say no / And her sweetheart on parole / Parents named her Jupiter / To bless her with a lucky soul / He’s a boy who never cried / When they locked him up inside / And she nicknamed him her teardrop / For the tattoo by his eye’. Stars N’ Stripes comes with a dry poke at the state of the world when he wrote it, the glint in his eye alluding to the sad lack of progress since then. We’re also treated to The Hook, Calamity Jane and, perhaps the most arresting moment, a lilting new track called (I think) Cry Cry, which was recorded last year in Nashville and is as yet unreleased.
The closer Walking In The Green Corn is a beautiful rendition of the title track from his latest album, a request from an increasingly brave and vociferous crowd, their earlier circumspection long forgotten thanks to Gelb’s ice breaking and Phillip’s campfire solidarity. What a (short) strange trip it’s been. Two nights before landing in the back of a large pub in Cambridge, Howe and Grant Lee were surrounded by Glasgow’s red sandstone architecture and playing at that city’s Royal Concert Hall. The contrast won’t be lost on them; they thrive on it.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
The Portland Arms, Cambridge – January 21 2015
All photos by Di Holmes