Husky-voiced Arizona troubadour Howe Gelb first visited Ottawa in 2003 to perform at the city’s Bluesfest. A chance scheduling alongside several gospel acts at the fests “Gospel Tent” (actually the city’s massive stone First Baptist Church) has led to one of his best albums and a sublime performance at a former strip club.

Flecton Big Sky is one of Ottawa’s most talented musicians, and a real character to boot. The stage name of Miche Jette – one time roadie for U.S. alt-roots rockers the Grifters, pal of Lou Barlow, Califone and other indie lights and a longtime performer in several local bands – Flecton’s roots-influenced stream of consciousness rock has seen him grab opening slots for both the aforementioned Barlow and Royal Trux without seeming out of place in either situation.

Opening for Gelb, he recruited banjoist and percussionist Jake Bryce into his backing band, the Dream Catchers, alongside guitarist Scott Terry and drummer Tom Werbowetski.

Looking peculiar as usual (this time, he skipped the fur coat and greasepaint for a crocheted power blue fedora) he twisted his way through a handful of angular post-roots numbers.

Howe Gelb took the stage next. He was in town for a unique performance, in more than one sense of the word. Since his first trip to Ottawa, Gelb had become acquainted with local guitarist Jim Bryson (best known to out-of-towners for playing with Kathleen Edwards) and and become reaquainted with Dave Draves (who owns the studio, Little Bullhorn, where Edwards recorded her breakthrough album 'Failer'). Most importantly, he had met Steve Johnston, the musical director for the local gospel group Voices of Praise.

Howe has a well-deserved reputation for collecting all manner of musicians to perform with, and this time around he decided to record an album at Little Bullhorn with Bryson, Draves and the Voices of Praise. By sheer good fortune he also met Jeremy Gara - then a member of Kepler but now serving as the drummer for The Arcade Fire -and Fred Guignion, an extraordinarily puissant local slide guitarist, just days before recording 'Sno Angel'. The album is excellent, and by touring through Ottawa he was able to gather most of the people (Gara and a few of the Voices had other engagements) who had performed on it to recreate a few of its songs on stage.

First the prolific artist – looking natty in a short-brimmed hat and blazer - took a quick solo turn through songs from his other new album, 'Arizona Amp and Alternator'. Howe’s usual modus operandi as a solo performer is to alternate between piano and guitar, occasionally engaging the audience in conversation, stopping songs midway to segue into others, and generally performing things as they come - “I’m allergic to set lists,” he explained later in the show. Depending on one’s views, this can seem either charmingly homespun or ramshackle. This time around his performance was more focused than on other occasions I’ve caught him live, if not downright brisk. After a good half hour he declared “Now, this is where the Arizona Amp and Alternator tour becomes the Sno’ Angel tour” and invited the eight members of the Voices of Praise in attendance, Bryson, Draves, Guignion and drumming sub Andy McDermott on stage.

Fans of groups like the Beach Boys may think they’ve heard good harmony singing, but the real pros in the field are veteran gospel singers like the Voices of Praise ; the three men and five women stretched out across a huge octave range with uncanny precision and coordination, gilding Howe’s dusty vocals with luminous call and response. The musical interplay of experienced sidemen McDermott, Guignion, Bryson and Draves (who played keyboards) was also superb. Gelb tunes both old and new are run through on 'Sno Angel', along with songs by his Giant Sand compatriot, the late Rainer Ptacek, and it is hard to imagine they’ve ever received better treatment in a live setting than on this night.

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