HOWE GELB & THE 'SNO ANGEL PROJECT at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Sunday (December 17), 9:30 pm. $20, advance $17.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Having spent the summer in Europe performing the jubilant songs from his 'Sno Angel Like You (Thrill Jockey) album with Ottawa's powerhouse Voices of Praise gospel choir, Giant Sand main man Howe Gelb is finally coming back to Ontario, where the hugely successful collaborative project began exactly three years ago.
Over the phone from his home in sunny Tucson, where it's a balmy 20 degrees Celsius, Gelb sounds genuinly excited about returning to the chilly Great White North for this weekend's double header with the choir in Ottawa (Saturday) and Toronto (Sunday).
"Playing with the Voices of Praise really is the most fun I have these days," says Gelb, fiddling with his shiny new vintage Gretsch guitar. "And it'll be a huge treat for me to come up there and do it just for the lack of travel details involved. Normally, I have to fly 15 people around the globe, but because everyone else is within driving distance of the gigs, I just need to get my own butt there.
"It has been three years now since this whole thing began, and you know, three is a Biblical number, so I'm sure these shows will be special."
Gelb is surprised at how well the record has been received; it's the most popular album he's ever released.
"Don't ask me why. I've never been able to figure those things out, but I know it's already exceeded the sales of all my previous recordings except for Chore Of Enchantment, and I think it'll soon top that, too."
While Gelb and company - including Jim Bryson, Fred Guignion and Dave Draves, with Arcade Fire's Jeremy Gara replaced by Toronto's Andrew McCormack on drums - naturally plan to focus on the 'Sno Angel Like You songs, those familiar with the album versions will notice there have been a number of arrangement refinements as the material has evolved, and a few new compositions have been added to the set.
"Other than the very first track on the album, Get To Leave, which we actually did last in the recording process, none of the songs was cut live in the studio. The session was handled the way I always record, which involves me hammering out the songs with a drummer in one room while everyone else is in another room jamming on the parts we've just finished, and handing it over assembly-line-style.
"That's the fast-and-furious pace with which we must record in the indie rock world to get things done on a tiny budget. But it was really healthy and helpful for the songs to get out there and perform them.
"Along the way, a few old Giant Sand songs have been put to the choir test and passed, and there's a new one I wrote called Ballad Of The Tucson Two, about 23-year-old humanitarian aid workers who were arrested while trying to help Mexican migrant workers they found dying in the desert. I didn't write it as a political song; it's more of a folk hero tune, and once the choir got ahold of it, the thing became voluminous."
Oddly enough, despite the gospel choir and Christmas being just days away, Gelb confesses he wasn't planning to haul out any Yuletide favourites for the Sunday-evening show at Lee's Palace. It's his call, of course, but Gelb has recorded two seasonal swingers, 1988's Christmas Everyday (Maybe It'll Help) and 2000's Thank You Dreaded Black Ice, Thank You!, which have rarely been heard. Either one would work nicely with a choir treatment.
"Now that you mention it, those two Christmas songs of mine were pretty good... really good, actually. I wrote Christmas Everyday with my ex-wife, Paula, and it has some really surreal lyrics. The other one is about a guy who gets to spend the night with a girl when the highway is closed due to freezing temperatures - no one in Tucson can drive when the roads are wet, let alone icy.
"I'll have to see if I can remember how they go - like I don't have enough to do already. Thanks a lot!"