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Howe Gelb & Grant-Lee Phillips


Going from gig to gig around Britain with a guitar and a suitcase, a young Paul Simon once sat on a Cheshire railway station platform and wrote a lonely song about missing a home far, far away. Tonight, almost 50 years later, two other great American troubadours are in north-west England, and, like Simon, are travelling light and by train. What differs, though, is that Howe Gelb and Grant-Lee Phillips are touring as a pair, keeping each other company. Tickets are sold out, and a Friday-evening crowd has gathered at The Deaf Institute not quite knowing what to expect.

Appearing from the stage door and climbing the steps, Phillips arrives dressed in Levi’s, boots and a pattern shirt. This is after all a songwriter whose work, both with his band Grant Lee Buffalo and solo, is steeped in North American folklore. I have become accustomed to seeing Phillips with a 12-string acoustic guitar, but this time he has a six-string as he begins strumming the chords to a tune from his latest LP Walking in the Green Corn, a record heavily inspired by his Native American ancestry. His velvet voice soothes the room, and we are soon treated to an early crowd favourite in the form of ‘Jupiter and Teardrop’, a composition that really allows him to flex his elastic vocal chords.

Telling us that it’s fun to play the old songs, he reminds us that it’s the 20th anniversary of Grant Lee Buffalo’s Mighty Joe Moon album. He plays the title song, which asks us whether we’ve been to the Cumberland Gap and tasted the finest of trout. I can’t say I have, but it sure sounds like a tasty meal after a day of mountain adventure. As Howe Gelb appears side-stage to take in the set, throughout Phillips’s performance of the half-dozen or so songs, I’m struck by his brilliant wit as mysterious things happen (like the mic cutting out for a few seconds) and by the polish in his playing and the sincerity and warmth of his vocals.

As Gelb and Phillips swap places, the difference in styles is quickly apparent. Before playing a note, Gelb, dressed casually in denim shirt and ‘Good Luck’ cap, speaks to the audience for a good few minutes, light-heartedly asks us all to sit down (no one does) and then aborts a couple of songs part-way through with a shrug of the shoulders. He can fit more songs into the set if he doesn’t remember them, he jokes. In the hands of most musicians all of this would be tantamount to the gig falling apart, but the brilliant thing is that the audience is loving it and hanging on his every word.

photo by Francesca Nottola

photo by Francesca Nottola

No one seems to recognise the next song, but then again it was introduced to us as one that hasn’t been written yet. Gelb has a deep, almost whispery voice, and he alternates between finger-picked guitar and keyboard accompaniment. A vocal delay effect is used very sparingly and unexpectedly. The lyrics are often funny, and he possesses a wonderful turn of phrase. Anyone present hoping for clichés has come to the wrong gig.

After an interval, Phillips takes to the stage once more to play some solo and GLB material. After a few declined requests from others, I decide to shout out for ‘Mona Lisa’, which Phillips promptly proclaims as a good idea before telling a story about the song and playing it. This is turning into the perfect gig.

Phillips now imbues the room with pure soul as he croons in falsetto a made-up-on-the-spot song about Gelb to summon him back to the stage. As many would have half-expected to happen at some point, both musicians are now together on stage and all set to combine their complimentary instrumental and vocal skills for our enjoyment. There is no doubt that Gelb (by now looking dapper after a costume change) and Phillips are the ones in charge, as during the evening they have the lighting adjusted to perfection, have the mirrorball switched on whenever they wish, and earlier Phillips unplugged a “nasty” smoke machine that has now spookily switched itself back on despite the absence of any electrical current.

All in all, it’s a very stripped-down show, and part of me misses some of the searing guitar solos I know and love, but such is the grace and tenderness in the presentation of these songs, I’m left wanting more after a closing to the show that includes the pair doubling up to cover The Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, sung by Phillips. It strikes me that Gelb singing this song could potentially be very faithful to the original given his vocal likeness to Lou Reed.

Our two headliners head back-stage after mention of a train to catch. Earlier, and due to our politeness in not wishing to interrupt Phillips’s enjoyment of Gelb’s set, my gig buddy and I missed the opportunity to have Phillips sign a newly-purchased CD. We now hope for a brief reappearance, and we even formulate a dastardly plan to intercept the pair at the back exit on their way to the station, but alas we probably missed them. The gentlemen have a couple more gigs in the UK and Ireland before they are Homeward Bound, but hopefully they’ll come back very soon. I for one will be missing them until they do.

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Steve Jones

Apart from about five years in total, I've always lived in Manchester. Shame about the weather and lack of beach, but I do like it here. My all-time favourite gig would have to be The National at the Academy in about 2010, although I did get Matt Berninger's mic cable wrapped around my neck (that was a close one). My guilty pleasures include the music of Bruce Springsteen, and I also felt a bit bad for feeling such joy at seeing Counting Crows live in the early 2000s. I recommend Lifter Puller, a rather obnoxious and unpleasant-sounding band that I can't seem to get enough of, even though they are long disbanded. Amongst my Silent Radio gigs, I was blown away by John Murry. I'll let you know if anything tops that one.