Howe Gelb is, by his own happy admission, feeling rather “choreless” these days.
Now before you go reaching for your Webster’s, here are three things you should know about Gelb and his band Giant Sand: 1) It’s a pun, son; Giant Sand’s 2000 album was titled Chore of Enchantment, a steaming slab of countryish rock, woozy New Orleans-style blooze and atmospheric psychedelia baked and blackened under the Sonoran sun. 2) That record nearly deep-sixed the band for good. 3) Giant Sand’s new Cover Magazine, comprising a baker’s dozen cover tunes, is the sound of a man relaxed, renewed and looking to the future — in other words, choreless.
“Things got unforeseeably bleak,” agrees Gelb, recalling with a short, grim laugh the period surrounding Chore. “And then it ended up with that album being probably the best record I’ve ever been part of, but me not wanting to do another record like that. That’s why this new record was to see if we could still have some fun doing it or if we should just retire the whole episode. That’s why the covers started jumping out. I started throwing out a couple for fun. And we just had a good time playing.”
In fact, Gelb, long a musical auteur willing to court cult-hero status in the service of personal vision, relished the chance to operate outside the pressure cooker.
“Yeah, exactly. It’s more of a responsibility when you’re the writer and you’re recording something you’ve written. Not being a writer of the songs I could step back as just a player and applicate myself, the way John [Convertino, drums] and Joe [Burns, drums] did, all equaled up again and having more fun playing. And I look at it and think there’s better playing here overall than on any of our other records because we’re just into the playing.”
In 1997 no one could foresee that Giant Sand was about to reach a crossroads. For Gelb, who’d founded the band some 18 years earlier (as Giant Sandworms) with Tucson, Ariz., slide guitarist Rainer Ptacek, that crossroads was to be his crucible.
At the time, spirits were high. Slush by OP8, the Giant Sand-Lisa Germano collaboration, was in stores; Burns and Convertino were getting good notices for their new side project Calexico; Gelb had recently overseen the star-studded The Inner Flame tribute-benefit album for his close friend Ptacek, then recovering from brain-tumor treatments. And V2 Records had just handed contracts both to Giant Sand and to Gelb as a solo artist.
Then, like a bad dream where you’re falling and grabbing ledges that crumble under your fingers, the bottom dropped out for Gelb. Ptacek’s cancer boomeranged with a vengeance; in the aftermath of his friend’s death, Gelb’s crippling writer’s block threatened to derail the Giant Sand recording sessions for V2; a frustrated Burns and Convertino nearly defected permanently to Calexico; and V2 dropped the band shortly after Gelb handed in the finished tapes for Chore of Enchantment.
Reeling, Gelb nonetheless gritted his teeth for the standing count. Then he knuckled down and got back to work. In 2000 he found a home for Chore at respected indie label Thrill Jockey. Next he shifted into an extraordinarily productive phase, issuing no less than three solo albums (Down Home 2000, Lull (some piano), Confluence) and three Giant Sand archive releases (The Rock Opera Years, Selections Circa 1990–2000, Unsungglum) in less than two years. Several of these titles are available exclusively at shows or at www.giantsand.com; the elaborate Web site is another recent manifestation of Gelb’s personal resurgence.
Significantly, too, Gelb, Burns and Convertino, following a turbulent period of fractured communications, made their peace. One day in 2001, following respective Calexico and solo Gelb tours, the trio convened in a Tucson studio and started screwing around with a handful of left-field cover tunes, stuff like “The Beat Goes On,” “King of the Road,” Johnny Cash’s “I’m Leaving Now (Adios),” even Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand.” You can call it returning to garage roots. Gelb would probably say that dumping agendas and egos made Giant Sand choreless.
“A few [of the covers] we’d done on the road,” says Gelb, “so we were bringing them back up to see what they could do for us. The Nick Cave song, for example, was a total live band meander. Us being the usual ‘meanderthals,’ getting in and out whenever we can. That was fun. We all kind of understand now more than ever that it was a good rerouting and a tuning of the engines that seem to have run the machine so long. It feels sort of a backdoor method of Zen where ‘this could very well be the last time we play’ so you end up playing then as if it was the last day on earth. The playing becomes even better and you’re satiated and happy for it. Also, [there is] our evolution as players — that bebop mentality where we have to change things every night as if we were playing the same place every night for the same people. Well, we are the same people, so we change things accordingly.”
Hold that thought. Never one for stasis, and having enjoyed collaborative “meanders” over the years via a healthy array of guest players and honorary members, Gelb has Giant Sand Mk. 2002 looking like this: Gelb, Burns, Convertino, violinist Susan Voelz (from Poi Dog Pondering), trumpet player Noah Thomas (of Tucson band Libre de Grasa), guitarist/vocalist Saholy Diavolana and bassist/vocalist Laureline Prod’homme (the latter two appear on Cover Magazine, on incendiary live versions of Ptacek’s “The Inner Flame” and Gelb’s “Blue Marble Girl”).
Enthuses Gelb, “There’s so much potential now yet to tap into. We’ll do everything from one or two of us playing at a time all the way up to all seven of us on any given song. It makes us even more like our radio station now, because you hear different production values on every song; different people are sitting out and not playing, or they’re playing some different instrument.”
The lineup debuted last November at London’s Barbican Hall as part of the venue’s Americana-flavored “Beyond Nashville” concert series. The event, adoringly dubbed “Howestock” by the British press, featured guests Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, Evan Dando, Vic Chesnutt, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner, John Parish and his big band, and P.J. Harvey (who reprised her Cover Magazine role as Exene Cervenka to Gelb’s John Doe on a cover of X’s “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene”). Gelb, summarizing the evening, called it “a wonderful piece of encouragement and inspiration. Also a very warm, substantial vibe that lent itself far beyond that night.”
That warm vibe, perhaps, is also a key ingredient in Gelb’s choreless frame of mind.
“This place called Giant Sand has become this place of desire more than a place of necessity where we needed it to stay alive and eat and make an income for us all to survive. [Burns and Convertino] make their living off their other gig, and I make mine solo, and we both do pretty good by that now. So there’s this odd, elaborate slicing of freedom that’s not hampered by coin logistics. It’s become this place we don’t have to be anymore but for some reason we keep going back to.”Fred Mills is a freelance writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org