“I can make this bold statement now,” pronounces Howe Gelb, “because I’m well over 50 and we’re allowed to come to conclusions: music in its most pure form is in a state of evolution constantly. I believe that whatever you are doing, however you are playing, it has to keep changing. It is always on its way somewhere. Whatever the music wants from you it will apply itself through you.”
If this seems abstruse for rock ‘n’ roll, that is Gelb. The self-described desert-hillbilly rocker appears on 40 to 50 albums—solo, with his main band, and collaborating with groups from a Canadian gospel choir to Andalusia’s A Band of Gypsies. On his recent The Coincidentalist, Howe tiptoes around a Beat-like faith in the unknowable. If a “coincidentalist” is a medicine man, a seer of signs that mark a trail, then the album is another episode in a meandering story that started with a flood.
In 1972, when Gelb was a teen living with his mother in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna River overran the levees, inundating their house. Plan B sent Gelb and his brother to the desert home of their recently remarried father. That a contrast of extremes can provide grist for creativity is hornbook, but when Gelb, playing piano, first jammed with Rainer Ptacek on resonator guitar, his music took flight. Despite, or because of, the acid trip he was on, Gelb perceived with clarity that he and the East German Ptacek “had entered some kind of a sacred sonic bond … he the older brother I never had and didn’t know I so very much needed.”
They formed a band, and a dynamic Tucson music scene coalesced around them. The shape-shifting group became Giant Sand (recently Giant Giant Sand), but Ptacek died in 1997, a loss Gelb still feels keenly. “Everything I do that makes the most sense comes from my time with Rainer. All my wild card ideas are from my own muckaluck, but all the … substantial and rooted, zen values came from Rainer. Things would be a lot better if he was around.”
Gelb followed where his musical interests led: the new boxed set of his solo oeuvre, Little Sand Box, documents these perambulations. Always, Gelb’s quirkiness shines through. “In the beginning I made abilities out of my [limitations] and that gave me a sound. … People would say, ‘It sounds weird because it’s made in the desert and it’s hot out there.’ They would come up with excuses for why it [wasn’t] normal or regular … it was just all I could do.” Gelb is ambivalent about the recordings: “When you hear [one], it’s just what happened that day. It would be totally different the next day and it’s how I play every night. I just travel by instinct … whatever I think is good at that time, I try to deliver.”
The Coincidentalist finds Gelb taking his intuitiveness to a new level. “I’m using this method of lyric writing now where … I just let it flow up and usually it doesn’t make any sense and then later it makes some sense and later still it comes true. You have to be open to the happenstance.”
The most potent happenstance on the album is the echo of another musician. From the first growled couplets of “Vortexas,” (“it used to be much cheaper / to find a love and to keep her”) links to Leonard Cohen are easy to find. Surprisingly, Gelb had never thought much about Cohen. It was only after the album had been recorded that Gelb read Sylvie Simmons’s biography of Cohen and the impact hit. “Smell[ing] a smoke from a future fire” is Gelb’s phrase for that phenomenon.
The album leaves more questions than answers. The songs toy with musical tropes: classic country music, spaghetti-western soundtracks. The background vocals are off-kilter and Gelb’s voice often heads in different, thought-provoking directions from standard rock ‘n’ roll. The effect is something like what Cohen terms “charged speech,” the derashas he heard in temple as a child, meant to have gravitas and mystery. Gelb was exposed to the same evocations and considers himself Cohain, of the lineage of Jewish priests descended from Aaron. These reverberations come through in Gelb’s poignant, half-solemn musing on mortality and loss, “Picacho Peak.” He sings, “When I was a child / my daddy taught me how to steer with my knees / Since he left this world it hasn’t felt right.”
“Cohain-wise … There is a ritual […] passed down from father to son … But since my father’s father died so young …My dad didn’t have the ritual to pass on to me. So I’m left with just the DNA imprint. I’ve given some thought as to how it all manifests in the things we do or gravitate to. […] I do allow the inkling of trajectory to possibly help with understanding where this music comes from. Its just me pondering … Searching for clues, but never ever convinced by any of them … Just keeping an open mind to the possibilities … never relying on them.”
KK Kozik is an artist and writer on art and music. She lives in Sharon, Connecticut, with her family where she also runs ICEHOUSE Project Space, a venue for site-specific work.