Howe Gelb is not for everyone. That fact may explain why there weren't more than a couple dozen people at Friday night's show at the Annex. Most of the people there were serious fans, shouting requests from his imposing catalog of releases under his own name, alter ego Blacky Ranchette and the Giant Sand moniker. The rest of us were sometimes confused, sometimes entertained.
Despite the disparity in crowd size, I couldn't help but be reminded of Ryan Adams' show at the Barrymore last week. Both artists took serious issue with the sound in their respective rooms. While Adams complained frequently about the sound he was getting on stage, Gelb bemoaned the hum of the surprisingly necessary air conditioner. After spending several minutes waxing about how it reminded him of the womb, he stopped mid-song and asked that it be turned off. The warm stuffy room and his pedantically hypnotic voice had a predictably lulling effect.
The similarities didn't end there. In the dimly lit rooms, both apparently prefer the light of a disco ball to that of a spotlight. While Adams brought his own gigantic ball on the road with him, Gelb settled for the one already in place in the Annex, requesting that it be turned on at various points in the show.
Gelb was full of contradictions tonight. Introducing one of his final songs, he called it "a new song I haven't played in awhile," claiming that he "wrote it but never learned it." All of that after stating, "I don't like words, that's why I use them all the time." When one audience member requested "Man on a String" from The Band of Blacky Ranchette, she explained "I know that band doesn't exist." "It does exist," countered Gelb, "it just doesn't have any members."
Responding to a request for "Shiver," he claimed it was "so predictable, maybe we should dress it up a little," and called bass player Thøger Lund to the stage. A handsome Dane with a terrific smile, Lund added low end and a charmingly bemused attitude to the show.
Opener Eleni Mandell was equally charming. A surprisingly confessional performer, she admitted that she was a late bloomer and had only recently started making passes at boys, "Which is great when it works out, but when it doesn't... ." In a set that contained, by her own admission, almost nothing but songs about boys, she pointed out the songs where it had worked out and those that were disasters.
In fact, she promised to let us know when she got to a song that wasn't about boys, "so you can hang onto your seats," she deadpanned. That song turned out to be about her love for planet Earth.
With her timeless voice and deceptively simple sounding guitar, she invites what seem like unlikely comparisons to artists like Peter Mulvey, at least in my head. Even though she nailed an affecting version of Tammy Wynette's "Don't Touch Me" during her set, she seemed at a loss when Gelb called her back during his encore to join him on "Ring of Fire."
The fact that neither one of them seemed to actually know the lyrics to the Johnny Cash classic failed to daunt them or to dissuade the adoring audience. In fact, that sort of spontaneity may be exactly what they love so much.