Drinking In The Beauty Of Howe Gelb & Giant Sand

Labelling Howe Gelb "the godfather of alt. country" is to damn him with faint praise according to Stewart Smith, who delves into the back catalogue of Giant Sand - as well as mooting a collaboration with Keanu Reeves

Howe Gelb and the Band Of Gypsies and Kristin Hersh play at the Barbican, London, tonight, Thursday July 22. Click here for more details.

A wandering troubadour in search of treasured happenstance, Howe Gelb is an enigma, an inspiration, and some kind of genius. In the 25 years since his band Giant Sand released their first album, Valley of Rain, Gelb has put out over 30 albums and worked with at least as many musicians as Mark E. Smith. Yet while The Fall leader is a cranky dictator, Gelb is a benign figure, open to chance, chaos and beauty. "Recording is best used as a pretty good reason to hang with the family of friends globally scattered," he has said, and those friends include Calexico, PJ Harvey, Neko Case, Evan Dando, Granddaddy, M. Ward, Scout Niblett, assorted Danes, and various musicians from Gelb’s hometown of Tucson, Arizona. "Everybody I ever work with I’m a fan of," says Gelb. "It just makes sense. Your options are kind of limited as to what you’re gonna do with other players. You can go fishing, but that’s hard to do out there in Arizona. You can watch TV, which is a big waste of time. You could have sex, but that is a little sticky… So the best thing you can do is make some music with somebody."

Epithets such as "the godfather of alt. country" and "founding father of father of modern Americana" sound like so much faint praise: Gelb’s idiosyncratic music has little in common with the bland strum ‘n twang of mainstream Americana. And while his music is deeply infused with strains of country, folk, jazz and blues, there is no obsession with rootsy authenticity. Like Neil Young, Gelb’s music can be electric and acoustic, noisy and chaotic, lovelorn and charmingly odd, sometimes within the space of a single song. His lyrics, meanwhile, are often inspired, a blend of Beat romanticism, downhome wisdom and playful wordplay. Critics have often drawn connections between Gelb’s music and the environment of his home state, and there is undeniably something of the desert in the dusty textures and open spaces of his records. But Tucson’s greatest influence is its isolation. Cut off from sources of new music, the young Gelb and friends were forced to make their own. "You can consider it a thirst. And believe me, Tucson is a thirsty place. So you drink in all the different kinds of sounds as much as you can."

Born in Pennsylvania, Gelb moved to Tucson in his teens, studying art and messing around in punk bands. It was when he met slide-guitarist Rainer Ptacek, however, that Gelb got serious, forming Giant Sandworms, whose curious hybrid of desert-rock and The Cure is worth investigating. Throughout the 1980s, Giant Sand ran in parallel with the loose country-rock collective The Band of Blacky Ranchette, before Gelb found a soulmate in telepathic drummer John Convertino. With the addition of bassist Joey Burns in 1991, the core of Giant Sand Mark II was firmly established, lasting until 2001 when the rhythm section left to concentrate on Calexico. Since then, Gelb has formed a new Giant Sand with three Danish musicians (Gelb’s wife Sofie is Danish and they spent four months of the year in Denmark) and embarked on picaresque solo adventures. "I have a big toolbox and I put all the recordings I make through the year in this toolbox and when the toolbox gets difficult to close I make a record out of it," he explains, "That’s how it happens. And I can tell what the record is because it’s just what I do. They kind of begin to form themselves, they tell you where they want to be". The latest Gelb album, Alegria, is a collaboration with Spanish flamenco musicians, and a new Giant Sand album, Blurry Blue Mountain, follows in October. With Fire Records set to reissue a raft of long out-of-print Howe and Giant Sand albums over the next two years, let The Quietus be your guide to one of American music’s great mavericks.

1. Giant Sand – Chore of Enchantment (Thrill Jockey album 2000)

Widely hailed as Giant Sand’s masterpiece, Chore… is as accomplished as it is experimental. Major label money (the album was recorded for V2, who rejected it as uncommercial) allowed the band free reign in the studio, and to the familiar dusty textures, Gelb and friends add snatches of found sound, woozy Fairlight strings, loping drum loops, string quartets and searing UFO guitar noise. Recorded in the aftermath of Rainer’s death, it’s an elegiac affair that pays moving tribute to Gelb’s dearest friend, dropping in Walkman-recorded snippets of the slide-guitarist’s favourite operatic aria (Donizetti’s ‘L’Elisir D’Amour’), and ending with a sublime Fahey-esque instrumental by the great man. ‘Shiver’ was the first song Gelb wrote after Rainer’s death, and it’s one of the greatest songs ever written about coming to terms with the death of a loved one. Numb from mourning, he sings of how "the spine waits to feel the shiver, but right now deals with a great lack of it." But that shiver, that spark of love and hope, can be regained, and he senses "there’s something in the water, besides a moon that don’t know when to quit". That shiver is delivered by ‘Astonished (in Memphis)’, where, over gospel harmonies and Jim Dickinson’s subtle organ, Gelb sings of an epiphany in the rain, where even "the staining gum spots… spell your name". His friend may be gone, but his wife and family remain, and they astonish him. Late in his life, Rainer remarked that the only reason we are here is to love each other, and Gelb’s songs take those words to heart. Chore… may be low on shit-kickin’ rock ‘n roll fun, but it’s a beautiful, emotionally complex album and the perfect introduction to Giant Sand’s world.

2. Giant Sand – Center of the Universe (Restless album 1992)

"Approach this LP with caution," warns one Amazon customer review, "The first half is LOUD and almost purely grunge. The screaming guitars can be quite impenetrable". It’s safe to say that this is not an album for fans of M.O.R. Americana. For the rest of us, however, those loud, screaming guitars are a revelation. Gelb’s guitar sounds like it’s throwing up over the distorto-splatter of ‘Sonic Drive In’, while the psychdelic sludge-punk of opening track ‘Seeded (‘Tween Bone And Bark)’ is simply astonishing, not least for the unexpected appearance of the ‘Psycho Sisters’ (Susan Cowsill and The Bangles’ Vicki Peterson), whose harmonies shimmer like a desert sunrise. The title track is even better, all thunderous drum rolls, dead-eyed riffage, and, again, those out-of-nowhere harmonies. To describe this as grunge is way off the mark; Center… is a masterpiece of psychedelic desert-rock, a spiritual cousin to the Meat Puppets’s Up On The Sun and Kyuss’s Sky Valley. Chaos abounds, but it’s been succesfully integrated into the songs (although the band still find room for a knockabout bebop jam). ‘Loretta And The Insect World’ is brilliant, its skewed, dissonant verse leading to a gorgeous chorus, while ‘Pathfinder’ would sit very nicely on Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Ragged Glory. ‘Milkshake Girl’ is perhaps the most surprising track here: a terrific oddball pop song that sounds like an Arizona Go-Gos.

3. Rainer Ptacek

Born in East Berlin but raised in Tucson, Rainer Ptacek was Gelb’s best friend and mentor, and the two men were heavily involved in each others’ music until the former’s untimely death from brain cancer in 1997. A fine singer-songwriter and slide guitarist, Rainer appears on a number of Giant Sand and Blacky Ranchette albums and Gelb continues to perform his songs, including ‘The Farm’, which was given a spirited gospel makeover on ‘Sno Angel. Rainer’s spine-tingling modern day blues – performed solo and with Das Combo – won the attention of Robert Plant, who co-produced with Gelb a benefit album that featured Emmylou Harris, PJ Harvey and Jonathan Richman. It’s Rainer and Giant Sand’s performance of ‘The Inner Flame’ which stands out, however, testament to the chemistry between Gelb and the man who was effectively a brother to him. In 1993, Rainer appeared on the BBC’s Later…with Jools Holland, his devastating performance reducing the audience to hushed awe.

4. Giant Sand – Ramp (Rough Trade/Restless album 1991)

After the partial diversion into Sticky Fingers country-rock of 1990’s Swerve, Ramp introduces bassist Joey Burns to the Giant Sand family, and everything falls into place. Convertino’s brush-work and Burns’s upright bass provide the perfect foundation for Gelb’s parched voice and chaotic guitar, and guests include Rainer, Victoria Williams and country veteran Pappy Allen. Opening track ‘Romance Of Falling’ is an urgent rocker featuring a stirring chorus sung by Gelb’s first wife and former Go-Go Paula Jean Brown. Allen’s warm tones find their outlet on the wisftul ‘Nowhere’ and a delightful cover of the Jim Reeves standard ‘Welcome To My World’, while Williams brings her banjo and burnt-sugar voice to the wide-eyed ‘Wonder’. Gelb’s daughter Indiosa appears on ‘Patsy’s Blues’, yelping the ‘Barney the Purple Dinosaur’ song and Heart’s ‘Barracuda’ over the band’s Mojave thump – triumphant proof that roping your kids into a recording needn’t be sickeningly twee. Elsewhere, there’s beautiful moonlit country balladry (‘Seldom Matters’), graceful ’70s LA piano pop (‘Neon Filler’), and ragged anthems (‘Always Horse Coming’). One of Giant Sand’s strongest and most complete albums.

5. All over the map: Howe’s 21st century wanderings

The dissolution of the ’90s incarnation of Giant Sand saw Gelb assume the role of wandering Sandman, collaborating with musicians from his new home in Denmark, and numerous fellow travellers from America and Europe, including Neko Case, Isobel Campbell, John Parish and Italian bandoleon maestro Paulo Rosso. Taking any opportunity to make music, Gelb’s on-the-hoof approach reaches its apotheosis on 2003’s Band of Blacky Ranchette album Still Looking Good To Me, where our interpid hero records a one-take duet with Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner to minidisc in an airport carpark, only to be interrupted by a bemused security guard. A new Giant Sand results in the excellent All Over…The Map (2004) and Provisions (2008), while Gelb’s solo records have become increasingly cosmopolitan. 2003’s splendid The Listener features sultry Scandinavian vocalists, Mexican barrio rhythms and elegent string arrangements, while ‘Sno Angel (2006) sees Howe divining the secular spirit with a Canadian gospel choir. And now there is Alegria (2010), a flamenco-tinged collaboration with a band of Spanish gypsies. "Perhaps people’s allegiances in this world aren’t so geographical, nationalistically speaking, but their nations are more sonic", muses Gelb. "The same music is being heard and cherished in Japan, as well as in Denmark, as well as in South Africa. What if existence is so much a state of mind that you determine your own country by what you listen to?" With its porous borders and friendly atmosphere, Gelb’s sonic nation is a special place to be.

6. Giant Sand – Long Stem Rant (Demon/Homestead album 1989)

Unloved by Gelb’s more conservative fans, Long Stem Rant is an inspired mess of fuzzy guitar scrawl, driving rhythms and brilliantly wonky piano playing that suggests Thelonious Monk in Wild West saloon. With the core band reduced to just Gelb and Convertino, the album introduces Giant Sand Mark II in all their scrappy glory. In comparison to the slightly antiseptic studio sound of earlier albums, Rant is a raw, stripped-down recording, complete with bum notes, off-mic banter and barking dogs wandering into the studio. Contains at least four Giant Sand classics: copping the piano lick from Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’, ‘Searchlight’ is a wonderful evocation of roadbound misadventures, while ‘Get To Leave’ and ‘Lovin’ Cup’ are among Gelb’s catchiest tunes. But it’s ‘Sucker In A Cage’, with Convertino’s signature brush-work, that sets the blueprint for the hushed beauty of later Giant Sand albums. 1994’s Purge & Slouch takes the rough, semi-improvised feel even further, but still finds room for the iridescent ‘Corridor’.

7. The lost art of the cover version

Gelb’s back catalogue is testament to the art of the creative cover version. Live, Gelb and band will slip into seemingly impromptu covers, in much the same way as a jazz group will introduce a popular tune as a basis for improvisation. This approach is captured beautifully on the laid-back live recording Backyard Barbecue Broadcast (1995) and Covers Magazine, the 2001 collection which served as a goodbye party for John and Joey. Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’ is reworked as a twisted Latin jazz shuffle, Sonny & Cher’s ‘The Beat Goes On’ sees the Sand swing, while PJ Harvey drops by for an urgent reading of X’s disturbing ‘Johnny Hit and Run Pauline’. Gelb returned the favour by covering Harvey’s ‘Desperate Kingdom of Love’ on Provisions, and his studio albums are filled with beautifully turned versions of country classics, pop standards and songs by friends. My personal favourite is from Giant Sand’s 1997 collaboration with Lisa Germano as OP8. Over brushed snares, marimba, accordian, and a flicker of controlled feedback Gelb and Germano smoulder through Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra’s classic ‘Sand’, perfectly capturing the song’s humour, carnality and mystery.

8. Giant Sand – Glum (Imago album 1994)

After the exuberance of Center, Glum is, as its name suggests, a moodier affair. Gelb’s voice takes on a parched, more sinister tone, and while the guitars still squall and roar, they’re used more sparingly, erupting to devastating effect in gloomy, low-key songs such as ‘Happenstance’ and ‘Left’. It’s not all darkness – ‘Helvakowboy Song’ offers up wild guitar nosie and funky soul-jazz, while the Indiosa-led ‘Bird Song’ creates, as Stewart Lee puts it, "a whole new music, Infant Free Jazz" – but the general tone is one of reflection. There’s an exquisite country-tinged piano ballad in ‘Spun’, while ‘Yer Ropes’ is a personal favourite, a widescreen folk-rocker with aching pedal steel and raging guitar. Pappy Allen, who died during the recording of the album, contributes vocals to a gorgeous, jazzy take on Hank Williams’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’.

9. Keanu: The great what if?

In a most unprecedented twist in the wayward saga of Giant Sand, Gelb and Convertino were hired by the producers of dudetastic time-travelling romp Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey as musical coaches. "There was a music supervisor who decided to pull us in to help those guys [Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves] look like they knew what they were doing on stage," explains Howe. "The funny part was back then when I played guitar on stage I would look down a lot. And then I had to learn some licks for the other actor – I can’t even duplicate my own stuff note for note." Most heinously, Giant Sand didn’t make it onto the film’s soundtrack, despite their music being perfect for the desert scenes. Howe and Keanu did, however, become most excellent friends. "He could have been in the band. In fact, we invited him down to play on a recording we did just after that called Ramp, and apparently he came down to the studio about a day after we had packed up and left". Bogus! "People don’t realise how quickly we do these records. That could have been fun. He kinda played bass a little like Jack Bruce."

10. Giant Sand – ‘The Love Songs’ (Demon album 1988)

After the relatively straight-ahead desert rock of their earliest albums, The Love Songs sees Gelb fashion the Giant Sand sound into increasingly wayward shapes. ‘Wearing The Robes Of The Bible Black’ is the obvious standout, a rowdy cowpunk rumble that sounds like an unholy matrimony of the Gun Club and The Replacements. The rest is a heady Tucson brew of catchy rockers and skewed synth-pop, culminating in an insane cover of the Temptations’s ‘Get Ready’ that sounds like it’s been beamed in from some bizarro world 80s MTV, all Eliminator era ZZ Top guitars and cooing female vocals. It’s ‘Murky Red Dew’, however, that offers the strongest hint of future directions, with a well-baked Gelb jiving over Waitsian junkyard percussion, casually throwing in a burst of guitar skronk for good measure.

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