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Rehearsing His Choir

Howe Gelb’s new album seems like a bad idea: One more middle-aging muso seeks inspiration, now joined by a (Canadian!) choir called the Voices of Praise. Eeeeeeeewww. But the old psych-country pioneer still mutters crisply over his guitars and keyboards. Lord willing, he’ll always be more of a clue-chewer and a yarn-spinner than a preacher, riding increments and leaps of logic (and luck) to paydays and highways through deserts and cities again.

Most of Gelb’s seven new songs hold their own with four primo re-rolls, including
“Chore of Enchantment.” They’re all wired to three (key) covers of restless ballads by Rainer Ptacek, Gelb’s late mentor and Giant Sand bandmate. The Arcade Fire’s Jeremy Gara drums, and the Voices sweep the horizon, reminding Southern me that hurricane season is almost here (following a couple of Heartland warm-ups). Inspiration can’t come too soon!


Howe Gelb, with the Voices of Praise and Jeremy Gara, plays the Bowery Ballroom May 27.

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Pickers With a Hint of a Grin Take on an Idiosyncratic Ouevre

With trepidation I approached the all-star alt-rock love letter to the late guitarist, label founder, archivist, field holler champion, and all-around shaggy super-genius John Fahey: Rare indeed are tribute albums worth listening to twice. My fear was that good-intentioned fans of the music would leach out the pep and wit of Fahey’s idiosyncratic touch and sweat his technique to the detriment of the empathy, invention, playfulness, and joy found between his lines. But luckily, there is a lovely and loose air of thanksgiving to the proceedings, wholly in keeping with Fahey’s all-inclusive spirit. Avatars like Lee Renaldo, Howe Gelb, and Pelt do their best to embroider their own stars and bars onto the fractured fairy tale of a flag that Fahey sewed by hand for years to cloak his bicentennial ghosts and keep the chill off whilst extracting gold from the mud of forgotten rivers. Devendra Banhart proves delicate yet untwee; Calexico’s version of “Dance of Death” almost makes me want to buy a Calexico album. And highest praise of all: Ace mumbler and tribute producer M Ward somehow makes the insufferable Sufjan Stevens downright sufferable during that statesman’s yuletidy stroll through Magruder Park.

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Music

The Dune Chronicles

Like many of the country’s frayed roots troubadours, Howe Gelb is a walking reconciliation project between the loner tendencies at the heart of his music and the community spirit it seemingly inspires. He’s like the weird uncle your parents told you to stay away from at family gatherings—he had a wicked gleam in his eye, but was always ready to spin some myth you’d relay to friends directly afterward. The weird uncle inevitably had a handful of like-minded friends also too smart for their own good, and more than willing to add to the enlightened degeneracy unfolding around them.

At Joe’s Pub last Friday, Uncle Howe’s Giant Sand, a Tucson-based musical confederation he forms with bassist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino, hosted a hootenanny; they were joined by a storytelling brood from the dark end of songwriter street. Long dormant Evan Dando covered Victoria Williams, Johnny Thunders, and Lemonheads among his own new songs, and made an eloquent case that he really might be the indie Gram Parsons of his own imagination. Vic Chesnutt and Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner wrapped their tenors around navel-gazing questions of sexual relations at once creepy and funny. And Will Oldham briefly joined that pair for a take on Willie and dearly departed Waylon’s “Good-Hearted Woman, Good-Timing Man,” the sort of morally doomed honky-tonk blues once regarded as male-bonding material.

Gelb meanwhile kept a warm, hostly demeanor. When the expanded, seven-strong Sand was not bashing out Kris Kristofferson and X songs, he’d be randomly picking at the strings of the baby grand or screwing around with a CD player and a sampler. (Among the sources for his improvised musique concrète vignettes was a ’50s radio ad for a Hank Sr.-authored guide to writing commercial country tunes.) These were pure mix-tape maneuvers, Uncle Howe fashioning his own collage of the American song- and sound-book. Such tinkering spotlighted a rare understanding of the culture’s great dilemma: how to strike a balance between modernist innovation and folk soul. A decade ago Gelb’s muse took a left turn at Albuquerque, wound up in Arizona, and found that it was only a state of mind. Now alongside a brotherhood of cultural mechanics, Gelb’s trying to see how Johnny Cash and John Cage might fit together. Everyone should have such an uncle. —Piotr Orlov


Deconstructing Harry

If house music is a feeling, then Harry “Choo Choo” Romero gave the few lonely hearts at Centro-Fly on Valentine’s night an emotional rescue. But first he had to break down all defenses: The speakers struck beat-and-bass blows at the audience before slipping them into funky unconsciousness. It was dirty punk-rock dance music made for New York.

The party celebrated the release of Choo Choo’s dark, drug-addled, head-banging Subliminal Sessions 2 mix—the candy dreams of “Tangerine,” the anarchic “Ghetto Tears,” and the hardcore techno of Umek. Then there were the classics to remedy all the head-fucking: Grace Jones’s “Love on Top of Love,” Raze’s “Break for Love,” and Aly-us’s “Follow Me.” Black men pressed each other tightly; a sole Japanese hipster stood in awe. This white girl’s legs turned to jelly.

Romero may not be a DJ name, but his songs are another matter. 2001 was the year of Choo Choo, House Producer from New Jersey (the state that grooms dance gods). His simple, melodic “Tania” was a runaway underground New York dance hit that graced many a turntable, including superstar DJ Danny Tenaglia’s; his “Night at the Black” was all over Ibiza this summer, its sultry, Santana-esque sounds tailor-fit for coke-thin Euro divas. The new mix CD, which features sparkling releases from the Subliminal label, as well as Romero’s own Bambossa Records, holds the promise of more fabulousness to come. And more Romero on the decks, too.

Choo Choo’s set would have torn the roof off a sweaty pit like Vinyl, where the dancers, not the drinkers, rule. Which was good for the Zoolander look-alikes who stuck around Centro-Fly’s main floor past 2 a.m., but bad for the hangers-on swarming Subliminal honcho and man-about-town Erick Morillo (whose promised DJ set never materialized) in the adjacent Tapioca Room. They got treated to “DJ to the Stars” Mark Ronson, whose ADD-like mixing of hip-hop classics and the odd ’80s rock hit was just as vapid and predictable as the moniker presupposed. Romero’s gritty crunch, however, cut through such celebrity-fucking bullshit. —Carla Spartos


Gong With the Wind

Before guys from Spain wandered over during the 16th century spoiling for empire, gong music used to pervade the Philippines. Today, the form is practiced mainly in Muslim Mindanao. Given the age-old tensions with Christian Manila, the kulintang (a row of about eight plate-sized gongs) symbolizes a way of life that has resisted, at least in spirit if not in fact, the West’s incursions—most specifically pop. Part of a Southeast Asian gong tradition (whose best known form is gamelan, or Indonesian court music), kulintang at its most seductive builds layers of sound simultaneously, suggesting some affinity with Sufi music, and inducing in its listeners two contradictory feelings: an urge to move and the desire to be still, entranced.

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Unlike the seamlessness of its previous appearances, last Saturday’s concert by the Mindanao Kulintang Ensemble at FIT was uneven. The first half revolved around a musical narrative, Baharana, or “Eclipse,” based on the folk belief that darkness comes about when a dragon devours the moon. Because doomsday is thought to follow, villagers unleash waves of music to chase off the monster. The usually accomplished musicians, led by guro Usopay Cadar, seemed intermittently listless. By marking all the right time signatures, they were just marking time—good enough for us to be still, though not entranced. They might have felt hampered by the storytelling format, which required bouts of narration, thus interrupting the music’s continuity.

In contrast, the second half, Pakaradia-an, or “Celebration,” was indeed just that. Beginning with the stately Kasayao sa Singkil (with musician Liz Reyes performing a courtly dance), the ensemble demonstrated its virtuosity, its six members taking turns playing the dabakan (a large single-headed drum) and the various gongs, from kulintang to the gandingan—referred to as “talking gongs,” for answering the melody laid down by the kulintang. The ensuing dialogues were quick, quirky, and even witty, with one number, Kasolampid, poking fun at elaborate courtship rituals swains undertake to impress their lasses. It was thrilling to see the gongs fly. Like thoroughbreds, they are at their magnificent best when at full gallop. Such flights moved me, rendering me a Yeatsian perne in a gyre. —Luis H. Francia


Dave Van Ronk, 1936-2002

Some say he was the gravelly-voiced, guitar-picking John the Baptist to Bob Dylan’s gravelly-voiced, guitar-picking Jesus. I say he was the Ramones of the early-’60s folk revival. Primitive and sophisticated, forward-thinking and backward-looking, he broke open a door that no one could ever completely shut again. Call it the white blues, call it postmodern, call it skill and intuition, call it a mixture of Louis Armstrong, the Reverend Gary Davis, and folkie bohemia. Whatever it was, it changed things.

MacDougal Street was the aesthetic center of the universe back then, and the album Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger (on Prestige) was a message of cultural importance from that center. Thirty years later, when I bought the CD reissue, I was shocked to find I remembered every note, even though I’d never even owned the original vinyl version. You just heard it back then. It was everywhere. And I recalled us 1963 college freshmen analyzing the album cover for significance in someone’s dorm room and a friend saying she’d spent her Christmas vacation forcing herself to learn to listen to it, even though—or maybe because—it was so rough, so blunt, and so hard. She knew she had to understand it if she was going to understand everything that was going to come next.

For the record, Dave Van Ronk, who died earlier this month of colon cancer, was only a folksinger by default. A trad jazz vocalist who saw that revival dry up in the mid ’50s, he brought his swinging sensibilities to the finger-picking guitar-blues scene around Washington Square Park. As he tells it in the CD reissue notes of his earliest Folkways recordings, “There was no G.I. Bill for veterans of the Moldy Fig Wars. [But] . . . the sight and sound of happily howling Stalinists offended my assiduously nurtured self-image as a hipster, not to mention my political sensibilities . . . In due course I came to realize that there were some very good musicians operating on the fringes of the radical Rotarian sing-along.”

By the time I caught him at the Gaslight in 1963, he was already bemoaning the passing of the good old days in the Village, but it wasn’t out of bitterness. At the height of his powers, he was too hip to take any cultural moment too seriously. In the ’90s, at his frequent appearances at the Bottom Line, he was just as funny and still a pleasure, even though there wasn’t much left of that gravelly voice. Unlike some old ’60s folkies, his music never promoted the idea that paradise was just down the road. So toward the end of his career he never sang, as some do now, as if he’d been betrayed by history. Like other postwar existentialists, he knew that life was a joke, but not a stupid joke. Someone that smart who worked that hard at his craft so he could sound that rough and direct yet swinging must have thought it was worth passing on the news that the joke was a good one. —Tom Smucker

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Music

Back to His Roots

Howe Gelb is one of those guys you assume must have been an original punk, because he’s unsettling to behold when not styled punk at all (Zappa-ish hair-mustache-goatee with decidedly unindie silver necklace), and because when he shambles into the set of shambles that time has proven to be his own, uninterested in alternative categories, the crowd skitters out of the room. Since the last Giant Sand studio album, Glum, in 1994, Gelb lived the death of his tumor-stricken collaborator Rainer Ptacek, recording part of his 1998 solo album Hisser from Ptacek’s hospital room. His comeback was to have begun last fall, but V2 at the last minute declined to release Chore of Enchantment, which will now come out in March on Thrill Jockey.

But Gelb isn’t totally alone: Drummer John Convertino and bassist Joey Burns have played with him for years, and when Gelb dropped out they formed Calexico, enlisting guitarist Nick Luca. As Gelb got moving at the Bowery Ballroom last Thursday, starting at a double-keyboard setup, switching to acoustic guitar and some electric, triggering at near-random intervals DAT tapes of opera, Mexican folk music, and Kansas City boogie-woogie piano, wandering through vocals on microphones that kept distorting, the three weren’t fazed. When Gelb said he’d just been to Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House (he identified with the comedian there from the dawn of shtick who tells awful jokes and plays worse keyboard) and launched into a gypsy reel, they were right behind him. They know his sound.

And it’s a real sound, as distinct as harmolodics or Beefheart, if less trailblazing. Gelb and Luca fast-picked some country at one point. This is roots music that accepts that roots is anything you feel like listening to, given a western sense of space and a hippie-punk sense of slack. Gelb rocks out less often, but his pacing and textures have never been more musical, and Chore of Enchantment, recorded with PJ Harvey’s John Parish and Memphis auteur Jim Dickinson, might be his best-sounding record. Does it have the strongest set of songs, you wonder. Hey, haven’t you been paying attention? —Eric Weisbard


Khan Do

Sporting hair the color of black cherries and a gauzy, floor-length black outfit that Queen Guinevere might have worn had she been a rock star, Chaka Khan confided to those assembled at the Blue Note last Tuesday that the very next day would see her in the studio cutting tracks for her new jazz album. Since for many of her fans each of Chaka’s albums is beyond category, it was interesting to hear her nail herself to a genre. But everything about this gig suggested Khan’s need to make a point about her career-long flirtation with jazz standards and jazz technique, which no amount of protean improvisation over funk, rock, or disco beats could provide. Oozing charisma and good cheer, Khan fronted a well-drilled quartet on keyboards, bass, drums, and cornet. The instrumental textures were intentionally heavy on fusion-era atmospherics, but the vocals were all bebop sass delivered with a subtle sense of Broadway drama.

Versions of “Them There Eyes” and “I Loves You Porgy” were given confident, imaginative readings. Her sly and triumphant performance of “I’ll Be Around” turned the song’s implicit resignation into wicked glee. She sang “Reconsider,” cowritten with Prince for her recent funk album, with a mean scat break. She recapped her soft-focus rendition of “My Funny Valentine” from Waiting to Exhale, and did a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Man From Mars” that underscored similarities between Mitchell’s unorthodox phrasing and her own. It was an all-too-brief set (a mere eight songs and opening instrumental), but a graceful career transition nonetheless. With both her daughter and Mary J. Blige in the audience that night, Khan was singing both to and for her legacy as the standard all the boldest, hippest, would-be divas have to beat. —Carol Cooper


Getting in Tone

Even while spending the last 30 years studying North Indian music, Terry Riley has never excluded the influence of ragtime and barrelhouse piano, which he once played in bars to earn college tuition money; the power, speed, and touch in this bearish 64-year-old’s left hand bring to mind John McEnroe, if only because Riley’s vagabond piano playing leaves you searching beyond music for comparisons.

In a program at the Merkin Concert Hall on Friday night, Terry Riley and the All Stars performed together only once. Though the ensemble switched formats (solo, duet, quartet) as often as they did modes (composed, improvised, or a combination), Riley’s imprint was prominent, even when he was offstage. He writes wandering sojourns that merge Western and Eastern styles; paradoxically, his music has a kind of restless restfulness. He plays piano with a glassy tone that’s pretty but not simplistic, and—in marked departure from the episodic pulses of “In C,” his 1964 landmark, arguably minimalism’s first meme—he amiably shifts form every few seconds, from witty, repeated chords to silence to fleet, trebly runs.

His group, on violin, saxophone, contrabass, and guitar, answer with subtle inflections, exploring the galaxy of tone. On “Diamond Fiddle Language,” the one quintet piece, Stefano Scodanibbio began by tapping his bow rhythmically on his contrabass, setting a swaying pulse that anchored the music. Riley sang in the Indian raga style of droning microtones, and after the others improvised delicate responses that goaded or delayed the sensuality, Scodanibbio capped the piece by attaching percussive shakers to his strings and gently plucking them. To these rock ears, the remarkable effect was like hearing Astral Weeks being rehearsed by a Bombay chamber orchestra. (Aside: With all five musicians performing, the stage was aglow with braided hair, pastel shirts, vivid vests, and Kenny G curls. Can’t the NEA fund a study to determine why new-musicians dress so badly?)

Riley’s baby-faced son Gyan played about 20 minutes of guitar music written by his dad, virtuosic displays in the classical-guitar tradition, with deft zigzags and finger-picked harmonies, like flamenco played with Buddhist pliability instead of Mediterranean bravura. In “Missigono,” Terry Riley applied his homely voice to mirthful verse that would’ve pleased Allen Ginsberg. “four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten/Judeo-Christianity, Muhammad, Zen,” Riley sang, obviously savoring the tone koan. —Rob Tannenbaum