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Over the course of four decades squatting on rock ‘n’ roll’s outskirts, Howe Gelb has made a career defying expectations — his fans’ regularly, and no doubt his own from time to time. It’s one of his extensive catalog’s central draws. Ensconced in the un-rock ‘n’ roll hub of Tucson for most of that time, Gelb’s weirdo muse first conjured in the hard rock-cum-post-punk Giant Sand (nee Giant Sandworms) before morphing into a host of other sonic dimensions. There’ve been outings in twisted country (The Band of Blacky Ranchette records), flamenco flavored gypsy fare (Alegrias), gospel choir-infused indie rock (‘Sno Angel), and even a recent turn to aging-in-style jazz piano trio (this year’s Future Standards, reviewed HERE at Blurt).
All these twists and turns, though, are uniquely Gelbian. Even the most considered retain a relaxed feel, where a clever rhyme or humorous quip trumps any literal sense, and the loose music vibe never drifts far from the open skies of his home range. Released in 2005, the first Arizona Amp and Alternator LP served as a revved-up extension of his country leanings and featured a host of cameos, including the likes of M. Ward, Grandaddy, Scout Niblett and even the Arcade Fire drummer.
It was a laissez-faire effort by even Gelb standards, and The Open Road — the first project since to bear the Arizona Amp and Alternator brand — pushes that notion even further as a “collection of sketches from several different projects spanning over the last 5 years.” What’s remarkable, though, is how these instrumental doodlings, fully fleshed-out tunes, live show-takes and collaborations stand on their own as both intro and primer to Gelb’s delightfully off-kilter world.
Here, in the title track and “Shapeshifter,” are the echoes of late friend/collaborator/mentor Rainer Ptacek’s high plains, lone rider surf guitar — what Blurt’s esteemed editor first labeled “desert noir.” “Every Now and Then” and “Llueve en Mi Corazon” find Gelb delving into the accordion-fueled Norteño rock that former Giant Sand bandmates Joey Burns and John Convertino incorporated to define Calexico. The snare-driven thrum of “Contraption” and a live duet with Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle (“Left”) highlight some of the elements that helped Giant Sand crossover to the indie rock crowd, and the sexy duet with Phoenix native Lonna Kelley (“Left of Center”) reminds us that Gelb usually pairs well the ladies, from Victoria Williams and PJ Harvey to Neko Case and Cat Power. There’s even a couple of numbers — “Piano of Erosion” and a live take on Chore of Enchantment‘s “Bottom Line Man” (called “Bottom Line Again, Man” here) — that scratch Gelb’s long-standing jazz piano itch.
Such a hodge-podge would instantly qualify as completists-only fare for most musicians. But the rules are different for Gelb, whose whole career has celebrated the alchemy of happy accidents. The Open Road isn’t essential, and only scratches the surface of Gelb World, but even a drop-in visit like this proves worth one’s while.
BY JOHN SCHACHT