HOWE GELB at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Sunday (March 5), 9 pm. $15. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
When I last spoke with tumbleweed troubadour Howe Gelb, he was on his way up from Tucson to play a blues festival in Ottawa despite his admittedly tenuous connection to the genre. No one, including Gelb, could've guessed that his Canadian adventure would result in one of the most intriguing musical departures in an already crooked career path.
Gelb's 'Sno Angel Like You (Thrill Jockey) isn't at all a blues album; in fact, it's just the opposite. With the vocal assistance of the 11-strong Voices of Praise Gospel Choir, it's as close as Gelb could come to recording a spiritual album barring a full-on religious conversion. The way he talks about how the project came together, though, he sounds like he's seen the light.
"The first night I arrived in Ottawa, odd coincidences started happening," says Gelb while vacationing in England. "Right before I got on a plane in Tucson, the last music I'd been listening to was from an album I'd never heard before by Nina Nastasia being played in a record shop. I get to Ottawa, and there's Nina Nastasia performing onstage right before I go on. Strange.
"The next day they had me scheduled to play in a church, and when I arrived early to check out the piano, I was held spellbound by a rehearsing gospel choir. I was riveted by the next choir that got up, and the one that followed blew my mind. I left feeling dizzy and wobbly, as though I'd been injected with something. I felt stained by the experience."
It sounds like Gelb may have received an unexpected dose of Holy Ghost power, but he hesitates to attribute those knee-weakening effects to the spirit of the Lord.
"I think it was more "thrust of the warble.' The sensation I was feeling from all those human voices the harmonies, the overtones and the rhythms it was overwhelming. That night, the voice in my head made me return to the scene of the accident. Why? To pick up a sensation? To find some evidence that might put me on the right path?"
Gelb arrived to witness an unscheduled performance by another gospel choir, who he claims were "just amazing."
"So I asked the director of the church if it was possible to make music by combining what I do with a gospel choir, free of religious context. He said, "Sure, if you keep it positive, I don't see why not.' That tickled me with glee as I walked off into the night."
For some artists, such a crazy scheme might've ended right there, but Gelb isn't the sort to give up on an outlandish notion so easily. Five months later, he returned to the "scene of the accident" with a gutful of momentum, some sketched-out tunes and the optimistic idea of finding a choir to sing them.
All he had for certain was some time booked at Ottawa's Little Bullhorn Studio, which he'd never seen.
For Gelb, that was good enough.
"Dave Draves's studio was so perfect for me: a 16-track 2-inch analog set-up that he'd hand-built in his garage. It was like walking into a dream, because it's just like what I use in Tucson. A band called Kepler was leaving, and their guitarist said, "Jeremy Gara might be able to help you with some drumming. If you need him tomorrow, I can give him a call.'
"Jeremy and I hit it off immediately," Gelb continues. "He's really responsible for the flavour and sound of the new album. He triggered me, and maybe I set him off. We'd go back and forth until the song was finished. That's how we recorded the whole thing."
The fortuitous meetings didn't end there. Gelb was still short one choir, which he needed to pull off his long-shot non-religious gospel collabo scheme. When singer/songwriter Jim Bryson dropped by the studio to add some guitar parts, he had no clue that he'd become a pivotal player in the creation of 'Sno Angel Like You.
While Gelb and his pals were still puzzling over how to find a choir for the recording, Bryson remembered a pal from high school, Steve Johnson, who he'd heard might have a gospel choir. Johnson agreed to give it a shot.
When the choir arrived and was gearing up to sing, Gelb suddenly realized he was looking at the singers who'd originally inspired his project all those months earlier.
"It was them, the Voices of Praise Gospel Choir! You can call it fate, but there was definitely something incredible happening. After I heard them singing their parts, I'd say it was darn near miraculous."