Misshapen identity 

Before singer and guitarist Giuseppe Manzella signed his first autograph, he worked at a women’s shoe store during the day and created songs with a few guys at night. His love for music often spilled over into his day job; while measuring one woman’s foot, he found himself describing jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald’s voice.

After a while, the seemingly bored woman asked, “Who’s Elephant Gerald?” Finding this question quite hilarious, he ran to the phone, called Brian Damage (the bassist in his nameless band) and left a message on his answering machine: “Don’t erase this — Elephant Gerald.”

A few years later, a man in his mid-40s came up to Manzella after a show and told him he wanted his autograph because he expected to hear good news about Elephant Gerald soon. Manzella admits he hasn’t actually been inundated with autograph requests since starting a band with that name — and a lot of the people asking are friends trying to be funny — but he takes compliments quite seriously, especially from people he’s never met.

In the past five years, the group’s following has increased from just a few friends and family members to a few hundred enthusiasts. And Elephant Gerald’s music has garnered enough attention to secure select gigs such as the all-ages one at the Shelter this Saturday. The Detroit area-group has just signed with JetSpeed Records out of Hollywood and is working on an album that should be out in the fall.

Much of the foursome’s draw originates from a core of diverse influences. Although music cliques provide a safety zone and steady fan base, a few bands in the area seem to be transcending genres, putting faith in originality and fans who appreciate more than one style of music. Elephant Gerald follows this path of individuality.

At first listen, one could swiftly drop the band’s music into a modern rock or alternative category, but on further inspection, it doesn’t fit too snugly into any niche. The vocals are clear, most of the songs are rock based and guitar-heavy, and the hooks are catchy. The ’80s pop up as a common thread, giving the band its necessary cohesion. Not the cheesy ’80s synthesizer stuff, though, lead guitarist David Allison says. Moody English bands such as Echo & the Bunnymen, the Smiths and Killing Joke are more his speed.

“When I saw Keith Moon on an ABC Woodstock special, I knew this was what I wanted to do,” says Michael Fulgenzi, who started playing drums when he was 8 years old. He’s been in jazz, punk, rock and fusion bands since then and hooked up with Elephant Gerald about two years ago. His training brings a sense of precision, which contrasts with the grinding rock guitars, which in turn contrast with the pop vocal harmonies.

Manzella prefers late-’60s, early-’70s and some ’80s rock.

“I hated the ’80s in the ’80s, but now I’ve learned to appreciate a lot of it.”

Somewhere in the mid-’90s, bassist Brian Damage turned his back on where music was headed and just played what he liked, as opposed to following major trends. His tastes lean toward metal bands a bit past their prime, such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, but he doesn’t ignore talent, and has found some favorites just outside today’s mass wreckage of forgettable, overproduced and simplistic pop. Beck, Travis, Radiohead, Sloan and Catherine Wheel make their way into his batch of tastes.

“We don’t fall in between the cracks,” Manzella said. “We sort of splattered onto the cement and spilled into a bunch of different cracks.”

The band has played for everyone from punkers to metalheads to alternative fans, and has received compliments from unexpected sources saying that the music wasn’t necessarily their style, but that it was fun nonetheless.

Of all the unexpected things that have happened to the band, however, the most unusual was when a riot broke out at a benefit show in 1997. The group that performed after Elephant Gerald had played only one note when a fight near the pool tables spilled over into the stage area and even into our heroes’ room backstage. They waded through pepper spray and the riot mentality, managing to rescue their instruments and get out with just a few scratches.

Since then, their performances haven’t incited any more chaos, but their devotion to rock’s roots and their own tastes have attracted more fans — and they’re on their way to confirm that fortysomething man’s predictions. Hang onto that autograph. Melissa Giannini is a freelance writer. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com. is getting ready for release

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