Published Sep 01, 2003Lest they take away from gate ticket sales, Toronto Star Bluesfest organisers weren't big on publicising the late-night performance series that saw a half-dozen festival acts take to the tiny stage of the host hotel's cheesy piano bar. As a result, it appeared that only about a dozen of the 80 or so folks who had forked over the five-dollar cover were there to check out discordant desert folk rock prophet Howe Gelb. He didn't seem to mind, nor did a handful of fans that showed up to find vacant seats within seed-spitting distance of the long-time Giant Sand front-man. Gelb started the set in now typical solo fashion with a bluesy recording of his dearly departed Tucson pal Rainer Ptacek. With that, Gelb declared the blues festival over and that the country festival had begun, as he launched into an inspired, mostly improvised set of slide guitar and stream-of-consciousness vocals augmented with oddball pre-recorded CD samples and dark honky-tonk-ish piano. (During Ptacek's opener, Gelb had strategically placed a coffee cup and saucer inside the bar's baby grand, imparting a fuzzy, broken down player piano sound to two sections of the keys that he later used to brilliant effect.) The nearly-two-hour set wasn't entirely avant-twang though, as Gelb punctuated proceedings with the odd straight-ahead selection, including a solid rendition of "Yer Ropes" that even managed to snag the attention of the room's roast beef majority. Things took a magical collaborative turn when Sadies brothers Travis and Dallas Good joined Gelb on violin and guitar, respectively, for a number of songs. The trio turned quartet when Mary Margaret O'Hara took to the stage to sing backups for a couple numbers, including a deconstructed version of "I've Been Working On the Railroad." Fie, fi, fiddly I O, indeed.