Mark Eitzel and Howe Gelb played ONCE Ballroom – 4/11

Mark Eitzel and Howe Gelb, solo troubadours and leaders of American Music Club and Giant Sand, respectively, were a well-matched pair of enigmatic, cult favorite singer/songwriters at last Tuesday’s intimate ONCE show. 

A small but appreciative audience – seated, to lend a more formal air to the ballroom space – was treated to a pair of stripped-back and freewheeling duo performances for the evening. Gelb, joined by an upright bassist, highlighted last year’s Future Standards with a set heavy on the piano ballads and highly entertaining oddball banter. Standards, he explained, was a self-imposed challenge to compose and perform in a more classical songwriting style, but he did reach for an acoustic guitar on a cover or two as well.

Eitzel stuck to his acoustic exclusively, accompanied by a keyboardist/backing vocalist, to showcase his own most recent work: 2017’s excellent Hey Mr. FerrymanThe record has a full-band swing to it, but Eitzel’s sad tales were perhaps even more impactful in their pared back arrangements here. Between songs, his commentary offered context to make a dark set of songs even darker. “Mr. Humphries” envisioned the lonesome final days of a beloved British sitcom character slowly dying in a medical facility; “Nothing and Everything” was a snapshot of domestic abuse he witnessed firsthand. No one ever accused him of being too cheerful. The set ran tragically short, but Eitzel closed things out with a pitch-perfect American Music Club throwback in “Jesus’ Hands.”

Photos from the evening below. Contrary to the very large sign hanging at the back of the stage, neither Eitzel nor Gelb were participants in the 2017 Rock & Roll Rumble.