Mark Eitzel and Howe Gelb are very different musically, but their careers have followed similar trajectories. Both came to prominence as the leaders of highly influential indie bands – Eitzel with American Music Club, and Gelb with Giant Sand – and managed to turn the popularity of those bands into successful solo careers (not always an easy feat). More remarkably, both artists released their first albums with those bands – American Music Club’s The Restless Stranger and Giant Sand’s Valley of Rain – in 1985, and both artists released their first solo albums – Eitzel with Songs of Love and Gelb with Dreaded Brown Recluse – in 1991. Both fall loosely under the singer-songwriter genre but buck many of the conventions, and both have distinctive, easily recognizable voices – Eitzel with his bittersweet croon, and Gelb with his raspy drawl. Given these similarities, it seems almost surprising that it took until now for the two to tour together, but they’re currently doing exactly that, and a stop at Hill Country proved to be the perfect intimate space for their DC performance.
Eitzel released his latest solo album, Hey Mr. Ferryman, on Merge Records last month, but he started off the show with his one American Music Club track of the night, “All My Love” from the band’s last album The Golden Age (his one AMC track of the night), “Mission Rock Resort” from 1996’s 60 Watt Siver Lining, and “I Love You But You’re Dead” from 2012’s Don’t Be a Stranger. From there he jumped into new tracks, featuring “Nothing and Everything,” “Mr. Humphries,” “An Answer,” and “In My Role as a Professional Singer and Ham” from the new disc. Between songs, his wry sense of humor was on display as he told the background to some of the songs. The all-too-short set was cut off rather abruptly mid-song when Eitzel mistook a bright light accidentally shined in his direction as the venue cuing him to get off the stage, but beyond that mishap it was a beautiful performance which showed why his rare live shows (his last performance in the DC area was nearly three years ago) are not to be missed.
Eitzel was surely a difficult act to follow, but Gelb was up to the task. Although he’d intended to spend this tour on the piano, he had apparently picked up a new guitar and amp along the way that he couldn’t help but play, so he started off guitar-based and then moved to the keyboard mid-show. Gelb opened the set with “Paradise Here Abouts” from his 2006 album ‘Sno Angel Like You, and then set into what he called a set of “standards,” starting with a version of the American folk song “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” which transitioned into a Hank Williams cover, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Asking the audience to pick a year and he would play a song from around that time yielded one smartass yelling out “1840!” but Gelb surprisingly obliged, with a striking instrumental piano rendition of “Una Furtiva Lagrima” from Italian composer Geatano Donizetti’s opera L’elisir d’amore. After one more cover, of George Jones’ “I Always Get Lucky With You,” Gelb moved the set to what he referred to as “Future Standards,” songs that he had written for his latest album of that title, on which he tried to write songs which follow the musical structure of standards. Tracks like “Irresponsible Lovers,” “A Book You’ve Read Before,” and “Impossible Thing” did indeed sound both familiar and yet still fresh. For many artists, such an experiment would seem like a diversion, but Gelb has been so all over the map stylistically over the years that the songs seem to fit right in. Gelb performed one additional cover, Leonard Cohen’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” and ended the set switching back and forth between guitar and piano for one more older song of his own, “Wind Blown Waltz” from his 2013 album Dust Bowl.