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Giant Sand

Three decades and counting, GIANT SAND have crossed the boundaries of desert-rock and Americana alt-country, to give listeners a blend of sun-soaked music that bridged a gap between contemporaries NEIL YOUNG, GREEN ON RED, JEFFREY LEE PIERCE and WILCO. Spearheaded throughout by singer/songwriter/guitarist HOWE GELB (a solo artist in his own right), GIANT SAND have went through a revolving-door cast of line-ups, the most revered of them arriving when bassist Joey Burns joined his future CALEXICO drummer/bud John Convertino on early-90s set, Ramp.
Formed as Giant Sandworms, in Tucson, Arizona in 1980, the aforementioned multi-instrumentalist, Gelb, along with East Berlin-born guitarist Rainer Ptacek, second guitarist Dave Seger and drummer Billy Sed were quick off the mark with the independent release of the `Will Wallow And Roam After The Ruin’ EP. Following on from a temporary relocation to New York, and by the time they’d returned to Arizona, Ptacek was no longer part of the team; he returned periodically. When Giants Sandworms disappeared into the dunes of rock’n’roll history (Seger had departed – like Rainer – for fellow desert-rockers NAKED PREY), his berth was taken by bassist Scott Garber after a few EPs surfaced.
Howe basically operated the all-new GIANT SAND as a solo venture, using varying personnel according to the project in hand. The first such project was the album VALLEY OF RAIN (1985) {*7}, utilising Garber, NAKED PREY’s Tom Larkins and fellow drummer Winston A. Watson Jr. Released initially for Black Sand /Enigma Records on home soil, and six months later on on Zippo Records (the Clapham, London-based record shop who were also instrumental in kick-starting the careers of GREEN ON RED and The LONG RYDERS), the set showcased Gelb’s brand of breakneck roots-rock and guitar manipulation/abuse (notably on `Black Venetian Blind’, `Tumble & Tear’ and `Barrio’), framing a vocal style lying somewhere between a preacher-like NEIL YOUNG exhortation and a LOU REED drawl.
Oft mistakenly roped-in with the Paisley scene alongside RAIN PARADE, The DREAM SYNDICATE and the aforementioned GREEN ON RED, GIANT SAND’s recordings continued to come thick and fast; 1986 seeing the release of a second album, BALLAD OF A THIN LINE MAN {*7} – the last to feature Garber who went on to form LOS CRUZOS with former ‘Sand sticksman Sed. Opening with the sprawling 7-minute `Thin Line Man’ and trailed by a re-vamp of DYLAN’s `All Along The Watchtower’ (the other was JOHNNY THUNDERS’ `You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory’), the ambling set rediscovered ye olde folk in `Graveyard’ and `Who Am I?’, plus cocktail lounge through `Last Legs’; any rock’n’roll identity was restored forthwith by way of `A Hard Man To Get To Know’ and `Desperate Man’.
Retaining the prior set’s guitarist Paula Jean Brown (aka Mrs. Gelb from The GO-GO’S) – now on bass/vocals to replace Garber – and adding studio guys Eric Westfall (the engineer/producer) on piano, and pedal steel guitarist Neil Harry, the blistering STORM (1988) {*6} brewed up twisting vibes from `Uneven Light Of Day’, the honky-tonk `Three6ixes’ and a dulcet cover of The BAND’s `The Weight’.
And then came THE LOVE SONGS (1988) {*8}. At times fractured and shambolic (example the cover of The TEMPTATIONS’ `Get Ready’), and other times a reverb-friendly component of country-rock by way of `Mountain Of Love’ and `Love Like A Train’, Messrs Gelb and Brown, plus newbies Chris Cacavas (a multi-instrumentalist from GREEN ON RED) and drummer John Convertino gelled throughout. Intentionally staccato and freaky, Americana was ripped up in the weirdly wonderful `Wearing The Robes Of Bible Black’, `Almost The Politician’s Wife’, the northern soul `One Man’s Woman – No Man’s Land’ and a cover of Leiber & Stoller’s `Is That All There Is?’.
1989’s LONG STEM RANT {*7} was down to Gelb and Convertino, plus guests including Paula Jean (now Gelb’s ex-wife), Cacavas and percussionist Jim McGrath. Their second set for Homestead Records, and again produced by Westfall in a friend’s barn in Rimrock, Arizona, the CD version added a handful of cuts, although none so fuzz-friendly and sketchy as `Anthem’, `Unfinished Love’ and `Smash Jazz’; his daughter was afforded 13 seconds on `Patsy Does Dylan’. Mostly penned lying somewhere between gigs, `Paved Road To Berlin’ (at 8 minutes), `Sucker In A Cage’ and `Searchlight’ thankfully dug themselves out of a self-indulgent sand-pit and back on their trail-blazing cactus-rock route.
SWERVE (1990) {*7} was GIANT SAND’s “road” album, albeit slightly off-drive with added guests Mark Walton, STEVE WYNN, JULIANA HATFIELD and Waikiki world-beatists POI DOG PONDERING (but mainly on the odd vignettes). As country-swing took shape on `Some Kind Of’ and the intentionally wonky `Can’t Find Love’, the highlight came through a BAND-like version of DYLAN’s `Every Grain Of Sand’.
Recovering from a link-up with LEMONHEADS’ Evan Dando, resulted in touring ensemble Fruit Child Large, and there was no letting up on other fronts. As prolific as he was restless, HOWE GELB filtered his acutely observed, sun-scorched vignettes through side-projects such as THE BAND OF… BLACKY RANCHETTE (from the mid-80s onwards) and bona fide solo ventures like 1991’s debut `Dreaded Brown Recluse’ – the first of many.
On the GIANT SAND front, the Arizonian enigma continued to impress the critics and his cult following with a further series of albums on Restless Records, including 1991’s RAMP (1991) {*7}, which introduced aforementioned bassist Joey Burns; plus usual suspect extras: Neil Harry (steel guitar), Paula Jean Brown (bass, vocals), their young daughter Indiosa Patsy Jean (vocals on bookend `Patsy’s Blues’). If one was expecting a roll-call of country aperitifs to whet one’s appetite, then openers `Warm Storm’, `Romance Of Falling’ (the latter with VICTORIA WILLIAMS on harmony) might’ve been the logical start – and then there was singer Pappy Allen, who stole the show on a cover of `Welcome To My World’. Sure, there were the quick-fire psychobilly cuts, `Always Horses Coming’, or the cow-punk `Seldom Matters’, but critics were still mystified to why Howe needed to example several eclectic elements into their repertoire.
CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE (1992) {*7} saw the core trio adding a returning Cacavas (on the great `Off Ramp Man’ and others), plus another stellar cast of backing singers by way of VICTORIA WILLIAMS and the all-new Psycho Sisters (aka Continental Drifters: Susan Cowsill and The BANGLES’ Vicki Peterson). Described as desert-fried rock’n’roll in some circles, the skull ‘n’ crossbones post-grunge of `Seeded (‘Tween Bone And Bark)’, `Loretta And The Insect World’, `Sonic Drive In’ and the title track, were in stark contrast to the howling coyote-rock of `Year Of The Dog’, `Pathfinder’ and the single `Solomon’s Ride’.
Possibly not as memorable as it should’ve been, 1993’s PURGE & SLOUCH {*5} was, in essence, a relaxing hoedown jam-session improv recorded at a friend (Harvey Moltz’s) house. Supplementing the trio of Gelb, Convertino and Burns were Malcolm Burn, Rainer Ptacek, Mark Walton, Polly Jean Brown, Neil Harry, the Psycho Sisters, “uncle Tom Cobbley” et al; an unrecognisable slither of `Dock Of The Bay’ and a `Thin Lizzy Tribute’ marked the spot where Gelb – although willing to experiment – was stretching the madness to zenith proportions. Cut around the same period but not thought worthy of a US or UK release, STROMAUSFALL (1994) {*6} was issued in Germany; fans will now know it as its re-mastered title: “Black Out”.
The wonder of it all was that GIANT SAND (again with Polly) had duly earned themselves a position on a major record label, Imago, the first fruits of their labour, GLUM (1994) {*8}, fighting off the recent devils and demons that all-but buried them in the sands of time. Produced by the aforementioned Malcolm Burn (DANIEL LANOIS’ assistant) and showcasing also Peter Holsapple on `Yer Ropes’, GIANT SAND/Gelb had finally found a niche point between VIOLENT FEMMES, The FLAMING LIPS and TOM WAITS; e.g. `Happenstance’, `1 Helvakowboy Song’, `Frontage Road’ and the title track; the set concluded with daughter Patsy on `Bird Song’ and a re-boot of HANK WILLIAMS’ `I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ given over to Pappy Allen backed by his wife Harriet and daughter Cheryl.
The sprawling aspect of GIANT SAND in both sound and conventional album-schedule terms was daunting for non-aficionados, and with the German GOODS AND SERVICES (1995) {*5} – featuring a clearer 1990 take of Pappy’s “Welcome” and a live cover of CARLY SIMON’s `You’re So Vain’ – the clarity was again muddied. The addition of Bill Elm and Mike Semple (both from the affiliated FRIENDS OF DEAN MARTINEZ) guaranteed further whispers of just-who-was-a-member?
Recorded without Paula (the band now a 5-piece), BACKYARD BARBECUE BROADCAST (1996) {*5} was culled from two live radio shows in New Jersey. The first of these comprised a lengthy `BBQ Suite’ (interpolating Charles Trenet’s `I Wish You Love’ and SANTO & JOHNNY’s `Seashells’), while there was fun-time on the kooky `Lester Lampshade’.
She’d been a GIANT SAND guest on a previous occasion, so the invitation to LISA GERMANO to team up with the core trio was hardly a surprising one. Under the guise of “OP8 featuring the ilk of Lisa Germano” and released on Thirsty Ear Records (Virgin’s V2 in the UK), SLUSH (1997) {*7} was the pairings only full-set collaboration. Bookended by covers of LEE HAZLEWOOD’s `Sand’ and NEIL YOUNG’s `Round And Round’, the record probably served as a learning curve to Messrs Convertino and Burns who were about carry off their own grains of sand via the CALEXICO side-project. Very much in the neo-gothic HAZLEWOOD & NANCY SINATRA mould, the Gelb/Germano tones gelled well on `It’s A Rainbow’, `Lost In Space’ and her own `If I Think Of Love’.
As said, Convertino and Burns subsequently hooked up to form the minimalist CALEXICO. In fact, the rise and rise of the duo, with their unclassifiable but mesmerising melange of country, flamenco, mariachi, folk and ambient jazz, somewhat overshadowed the more level trajectory of GELB’s solo and group work. While the half-finished sketches of 1998’s `Hisser’ brought an end to his brief spell with V2, the more sympathetic environs of Chicago’s Thrill Jockey Records resulted in the best GIANT SAND release in years: CHORE OF ENCHANTMENT (2000) {*8}.
Heavy with the spirit of the late Ptacek (who’d died of a brain tumour on November 12, 1997), the album’s drifting desert laments were reassuringly opaque, aside from punkier cuts. Parched singer Howe effectively underscored a raw and rootsy set of songs, perfectly sublime on `Punishing Sun’, `(Well) Dusted (For The Millennium)’, `Shiver’ and `Dirty From The Rain’. Ptacek plays his slide guitar part on the fitting end-piece instrumental, `Shrine’.
While Howe’s often contrary influences were – cryptically or otherwise – to the fore, the veteran songwriter gathered together an enticing selection of material for 2002’s COVER MAGAZINE {*7}. Stern medleys of MARTY ROBBINS’ `El Paso’ matched with an harmonica-fuelled take of NEIL YOUNG’s `Out On The Weekend’ opened the set, while The INSECTS’ `Human’ and GOLDFRAPP’s `Lovely Head’ probably shaded JOHNNY CASH’s `Wayfaring Stranger’, paired with Bart Howard’s standard `Fly Me To The Moon’ (featuring guest backing vox of NEKO CASE and KELLY HOGAN).
X’s `Johnny Hit And Run Pauline’ (showcasing PJ HARVEY), PJ HARVEY’s coincidental `Plants And Rags’, NICK CAVE’s `Red Right Hand’ and BLACK SABBATH’s `Iron Man’, were just a few of the numbers upon which Gelb trained his dessicated vocal chords, the latter in particular, coming in for a radical, low-key jazz re-working; others to brew up nostalgia included SONNY BONO’s `The Beat Goes On’, ROGER MILLER’s `King Of The Road’, JOHNNY CASH’s `I’m Leaving Now’, while there was even room for GELB’s own `Blue Marble Girl’ (with GRANDADDY’s Jim Fairchild) and Ptacek’s `The Inner Flame’. Incidentally, the G Sand’s “Bootleg series” favoured NEIL YOUNG’s `Music Arcade’ and The BYRDS’ `Change Is Now’.
Without CALEXICO’s Convertino and Burns; substituted by newcomers Anders Pedersen (guitars), Thoger T. Lund (bass, double bass) and Peter Dombernowsky (drums, percussion), GIANT SAND’s IS ALL OVER THE MAP (2004) {*7} was greeted with the usual muffled response from the buying public. Every bit as shambolic and sprawling as his previous “chores”, Howe and team either performed with a cool hush on the breezy `Classico’, `NYC Of Time’ and `Flying Around The Sun At Remarkable Speed’ or a dustbowl twister of swing and punk that encompassed a medley of SEX PISTOLS-vs-WAYLON JENNINGS’ `Anarchistic Bolshevistic Cowboy Bundle’ (vocals from his daughter Patsy Jean) plus `A Classico (Reprise)’ (with lead vocals by VIC CHESNUTT and Henriette Sennenvalt); as always, Gelb’s second wife Sofie Albertsen was on hand to add her vocals, pitted against – this time – Marie Frank (on `Cracklin Water’, `Fool’ and `Napoli’) and SCOUT NIBLETT (on `Remote’).
Diverting from his weird country-folk motif under the umbrella of the eponymous ARIZONA AMP AND ALTERNATOR in ’05 (atop of a further The BAND OF… BLACKY BLANCHETTE set in ’03 and the odd solo outing: 2006’s `Sno Angel Like You’, 2003’s `The Listener’ and 2001’s `Confluence’), proVISIONS (2008) {*7} finally suffixed GIANT SAND’s glowing CV. Scribed for Yep Roc Records in a desert or at his second home in Denmark, Howe roped in the likes of NEKO CASE, ISOBEL CAMPBELL, M. WARD and Lonna Kelley to smooth out his y’all gruff vox; his nocturnal coyote cowboy narratives kicking into gear on back-porch beauts `Stranded Pearl’, `Increment Of Love’ and `Muck Machine’.
2010’s BLURRY BLUE MOUNTAIN {*7} marked 25 years of GIANT SAND – 30 if one counted their embryonic formation; Britain’s Fire Records released this and their complete back catalogue with bonus extras. Lonna’s contributions now running into co-compositions such as `Lucky Star Love’, `No Tellin’’ and `Love A Loser’, she was upgraded to group member. All but a re-tread of `Thin Line Man’, Gelb and Co kept it simplistic and strictly by the book as the tight country-rock numbers rolled off the cuff; `Ride The Rail’, `Better Man Than Me’ and `Brand New Swamp Thing’ the high-strutting exceptions.
Gone were the days when GIANT SAND could stand tall as a trio, briefly as GIANT GIANT SAND their expansion to a 12-piece ensemble (plus guests!) verged on the big band concept on TUCSON: A COUNTRY ROCK OPERA (2012) {*7}. Usual suspects and the all-too-brief return of Larkins and Convertino, alongside pianist/guitarist Nicolaj Heyman (now a bona fide member), Maggie Bjorklund (pedal steel), Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan, Iris Jakobsen, Jason Lytle (of GRANDADDY) et al, Gelb cherry-picked 19 tracks over 68 minutes, with only a few covers including The BAND’s `Out Of The Blue’. The bittersweet story goes as follows: worthy drifter donates all his worldly belongings, falls in love at a dancehall, and so on, and so on; narrative/confessional songs absorbing all the atmosphere of a dustbowl opera were `Forever And A Day’, `Plane Of Existence’ and the sombre `Not The End Of The World’.
On the back of his umpteenth solo effort in 2013 (`The Coincidentalist’), HEARTBREAK PASS (2015) {*7} was another landmark piece by the now settled sextet; plus, of course, a stellar cast of guests in Grant Lee Phillips, Steve Shelley, Jason Lytle, Ilse DeLange and engineer JOHN PARISH. Sounding seasoned but world-weary as ever, the smoky-voxed Howe – like on so many post-millennium sets – transported C&W kicking and screaming into the 21st century. There are some beautiful pieces on board the pass (issued on New West Records), a few of them like the WAITS-vs-GAYLE or PASTELS-like piano trip `Pen To Paper’, the LEONARD COHEN-esque `House In Order’ or the routine `Heaventually’, thematic of a journeyman musician. Closing the book with his father-daughter duet, `Forever And Always’ (with Talula), one could be forgiven for almost forgetting the rollicking `Texting Feist’, `Hurtin’ Habit’, `Transponder’ and the acerbic `Song So Wrong’.
Weirdly oblivious to their folks back home, but maintaining a strengthening resolve in the UK (thanks in no short measure to Fire Records), the swaggering Gelb’s GIANT SAND went back to basics, and time, in the re-boot of their long-missed debut set. Re-imagined as RETURNS TO VALLEY OF RAIN (2018) {*6}, in full-throttle alt-rawk/country punk, reinvigorated versions of everything from `Tumble And Tear’ to `Black Venetian Blind’, took one step back to two forward. It marked the entrance of Annie Dolan on guitar (to replace Villa, Jakobsen and Christiansen), whilst there was space in the barn for the returning Watson and Larkins (but no Dombernowsky).
© MC Strong 1997-2003/GRD // rev-up MCS May2015-May2019

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