Howe Gelb & A Band of Gypsies – Alegrias

January 01, 1970

(Fire)

 

www.firerecords.com

 

After Howe Gelb managed somehow to mesh the gospel singing of a
Canadian church choir to his twisted secular narratives and fractured Tucson twang
on 2005’s Sno’ Angel, you got the
feeling he could glom onto any style and wind up owning it. Balinese gamelan
and country shuffles?  Why not?! Peruvian
pan flute and pedal steel? Fuck it, let’s try it.

 

So when word got out that Gelb had been collaborating on his tours to Spain
with various legendary Flamenco guitar players, you thought, again: Why the
hell not? But Alegrias is, in truth,
not that big a stretch, and the culture-mash much more simpatico in temperament
to begin with. Or, to put it another way, right in Gelb’s sun-baked wheelhouse.

 

Tracks like “Cowboy Boots on Cobblestones” (which reminds us that
Spaghetti Westerns may have been Italian-directed, but they were filmed in Spain)
and the shuffling opener “4 Door Maverick” sprinkle in their flamenco accents
judiciously: a fleet-wristed strum here, some castanets or palmas (handclaps) there. You can feel the Spanish heat coming off
the shuffling “Blood Orange,” piano and syncopated guitar augmented with pretty
female backing vocals.

 

Elsewhere, the beauty lies in the contrasts. The luminous nylon-string
runs of “Uneven Light of Day” eventually give way to a brief-but-fuzzy Crazy
Horse feedback implosion (circa Purge
& Slouch
-era Giant Sand) – but only after Gelb sings, tongue firmly in
cheek, “Clint Eastwood and Neil Young/won’t make a statement on this one/cuz
big guitars and big guns/won’t put a dent in this one.”  On “Broken Bird & the Ghost River,” maybe one
of Gelb’s prettiest songs, the sleek flamenco lead serves as foil for the electric
rock barre chords, forming a bridge between old world and new.

 

Maybe the most impressive moments can be found on the sparsely
arranged “(There Were)Always Horses Coming,” the song-long nylon runs
contrasting with jazz chords over a subtle shuffling beat; Gelb’s laconic
delivery is the very vision of Eastwood squinting into the sun and chomping on
his cigarillo. “The Ballad of Lole Y Manuel,” too, is a bossa-paced take that
Gelb sings in Spanish, the piano and guitar playing off each other with the
confidence of a veteran jazz act.

 

In interviews, Gelb has downplayed his own guitar playing compared to
these Spanish maestros. But on “Hangin’ Judge,” he shows that the percussive,
Gelbian pick/strum style – think Thelonius Monk on a six-string and you’re in the
neighborhood – is more difficult than he lets on. And in the end, these are
Gelb’s songs through and through; that’s what keeps them from sounding like
Gypsy Kings tourist-pleasers. Flamenco has long been thought of as Spain’s blues,
and the blues is where Gelb’s music – and all American music — begins its
journey. That these two cultural forces get along so famously here shouldn’t be
a surprise, at least not in the hands of an iconoclastic and honest musician
like Gelb. 

 

DOWNLOAD: “Broken River
& the Ghost River” “Hangin’ Judge” “Uneven Light of
Day” JOHN SCHACHT

 

Read our recent
two-part interview with Howe Gelb, in which he discusses the new album and
more, right here.

Leave a Reply