JOHNNY D’S, SOMERVILLE, MA
November 19, 2014
Howe Gelb (Giant Sand) has spent the better part of the last thirty years cultivating a catalog of idiosyncratic works that speak to the listener in a particular, sharp voice. Grant Lee Phillips (Grant Lee Buffalo) on the other hand is a songwriter who speaks from an evocative baritone/tenor to wide, open landscapes. The decision to share billing for a tour along the East Coast, west into the heartland and further back South is a brilliant if odd pairing, as evidenced by their appearance at Johnny D’s just north of Boston.
Gelb took the stage first because, as he explained, he “is older than Grant, and therefore has less time.” This sly humor set a tone for the evening as the songsmith cycled between acoustic guitar, electric piano and an electric guitar capable of an entire range of sound of its own.
It was clear that the majority of the audience in the house that night were unfamiliar with and somewhat jarred by the songs that Howe Gelb spun for the evening. Like a Pennsylvanian turned Arizonan, adjusting to this climate gradually but deftly, Gelb refused to abstain fully from the quirks nature of his catalog but remained in the deceptive familiarity of blues rock and minor-key jazz, challenging the audience to shed notions of the mundane and comfortable. At the close of his set, he invited co-headliner Grant Lee Phillips to join him, much to the audience’s delight.
In revue style, Phillips continued on without intermission immediately following Gelb’s departure from the stage. Only a brief few of the songs performed were derived from his tenure with 90s darlings Grant Lee Buffalo, while the lion’s share of tunes were culled from his acclaimed career as an alt-country solo songwriter. Perhaps the most poignant moment of his set came from a tune (ostensibly titled “Moccasin Creek”) which Phillips had written for and dedicated to his father.
Soon thereafter, Grant invited Howe Gelb back onto the stage to share another tune. Gelb toned down his “second set” mostly to “acoustic songs” played at the electric piano, with pointed lyrics like “You don’t miss your water til your well runs dry / You don’t miss your spark ’til the night is cold” (“Chunk of Coal”) peppered with wry asides like “I think Robert Johnson said that.”
One of Gelb’s finest moments, and perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening did not come at the piano, however. With electric guitar in hand and a clean tone from his amplifier, the songwriter ad-libbed a beautiful spoken word blues rap in honor of fellow songwriter and close friend Rainer Ptacek, leading into a haunting rendition of the gospel folk song “Wayfaring Stranger,” made even more poignant on the eve of the anniversary of Ptacek’s passing (November 12, 1997; “…the veil is thin tonight,” quipped Phillips earlier in the evening).
Grant Lee Phillips joined the stage for one more tune, “I Always Get Lucky With You” (a pop-country hit for George Jones) done as a tongue-in-cheek, bombastic ballad with Howe Gelb once again at the piano. This irreverent, sideways take on the country classic was a perfect close to the evening, indicative of the strange but powerful combination of two master songsmiths from the American West.