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The languid ferocity of Giant Sand's Howe Gelb

When I walked into the Giant Sand show on Boxing Day, midway into the band's first number, I was taken aback. Howe Gelb, the group's sole permanent member, is a man of many moods, with performances that vary accordingly. But this time he seemed more interested in playing guitar than in playing himself. The music was still languid, but ferociously so.

It felt like Gelb was out to prove a point. Was he feeling competitive, thinking of his former bandmates Joey Burns and John Covertino's "spin-off" band Calexico, which had played here the previous week? Was there someone else in the crowd that he particularly wanted to impress? Or was this simply the case of a well-rested, yet perpetually restless musician taking special pleasure in playing rock and roll for an appreciative hometown audience?

During my years in Tucson, the home to which Gelb invariably returns, I have seen him perform live over twenty times. And, though almost every show had moments of memorable intensity, I still had the feeling that he was holding something back. "That's just Howe's personality," I would think to myself. While consistently amiable, he gave the impression of someone who was watching everything, including himself, from a vantage point high above: charming, yet inscrutable.

The only exception was when he would invoke his former bandmate Rainer Ptacek, whose death from brain cancer back in 1997 affected him – and the whole Tucson music community – deeply. Still, while I never doubted the sincerity of these tributes, whether spoken or sung, they seemed a little out of character, as if the pain of loss kept forcing him to be more direct with his feelings than he preferred to be.

On this night, however, the only thing he seemed to be holding back was his tendency to hold back. Instead of breaking off solos once he had demonstrated that he could still play them; instead of interrupting songs in the middle to tell stories; instead of making it seem like he was wryly amused by the proceedings, Gelb provided detailed evidence of the virtuosity he normally just gestures towards. In other words, he was playing like there was going to be no tomorrow.

It's rare that I make it out to shows these days. And when I do, I find it increasingly difficult to make the passage from registering music in my brain to feeling it in my blood. Sometimes I never manage at all. But here I stood, only minutes from having parked my car, completely immersed in the moment. And when I did come up for mental air, a few songs later, I realized that nearly everyone around me seemed to be similarly transfixed. No one was talking or taking pictures, the way concert-goers of the mobile-phone era habitually do. The crowd was mirroring Gelb's seriousness of purpose.

Then it hit me: we were listening like there was going to be no tomorrow. It made sense. After all, Gelb had announced that Giant Sand was calling it quits in early 2016, after over three decades of recording and touring. And while he had reconstituted a one-off version of the band for a benefit show recently, there was no guarantee that he would ever be performing in this mode again. While his softer, solo-branded work will presumably continue as long as he is able, his press release about the break-up had strongly suggested that his years of rocking out were over, noting that "the forefathers of this output have been set in rock: David Bowie, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Neil Young," while "the forefathers set in ivory are probably responsible for what's coming next."

What struck me more, though, was how much effort we all seemed to be expending to unmake sense. Although Bruce Springsteen is further into his sixth decade than Gelb, his recent run of sold-out Broadway shows represents a logical response to overwhelming demand. As much as Gelb's fans here in Tucson adore him, however, no one was demanding that he perform. The $10 ticket price for this show was certainly not going to generate enough of a gate to make this night a financially irresistible proposition. Nor had the band ever been gone long enough or, for that matter, stable enough in its membership to make the prospect of a reunion tour enticing. This plausibly final Giant Sand show was perversely pure, yet also purposeful.

It reminded me of something Gelb had said to me back in 2004, when I interviewed him for a Punk Planet piece that never came to be. At the time, he wanted to talk about the new incarnation of Giant Sand he had assembled in the wake of Burns and Covertino's somewhat fraught departure. Already deeply engaged with a variety of solo-branded work, not to mention the revival of his more overtly "Western" side project, The Band of Blacky Ranchette, he could certainly have retired the Giant Sand name, at least for a while. But when some of the Danish musicians he had recruited for his solo work while living abroad started to feel more like a "real" band, he decided that wouldn't be necessary.

"There has to be a hang time," he explained. "There has to be a camaraderie of sorts that occurs, as opposed to just going in and using some guys to back you up and not seeing them again until next time. And that's what happened in Denmark, from going over there." At first, it wasn't clear whether these musicians could transition from the quieter, jazz-inflected songs they had helped him realize for The Listener into the sound he identifies with Giant Sand, which is "going to be louder, abrasive" and "has to utilize spontaneity a lot." When he was persuaded that they could achieve this feat, he decided his best-known musical identity would persist.

The same thing happened a number of years later when, once again faced with the prospect of not having enough regular personnel to sustain the band, Gelb incorporated two much-younger Tucson musicians, Gabriel Sullivan and Brian Lopez, into an ensemble that underscored Giant Sand's psychedelic underpinnings. Following along with the band's social media posts during this period, in which they undertook a series of European tours, it gradually became apparent that Gelb liked this line-up so much that he couldn't imagine replacing it. That's why, as Sullivan and Lopez's new band XIXA started to draw accolades, I wasn't that surprised when he finally decided to consign the band's name to the archives.

Sullivan did join Gelb on stage for some of the Valley of Rain tracks at Club Congress, inciting the band into even greater frenzy. I'd never heard their music sound more punk, whether on recordings or live. And I'd never heard it sound more like classic rock or hard blues, either. Even though this performance was ostensibly intended to "repeat" the debut album in a live setting, it differed radically from the by-the-book live renditions that have become a staple of reunion tours. Giant Sand didn't sound this good in 1985. Or 1995 or 2005, either. This was how Giant Sand sounded best at those different junctures, but all at once. For that hour and a half, the band produced a palimpsest in which it was possible to discern all of the personas Gelb has adopted over the years, but lit up from a new angle, revealing startlingly visceral relationships between them.

For once, Gelb wasn't "all over the map," as he had once titled a Giant Sand release, but had been transfigured into a map himself, overlaid by all the music he had ever heard and loved. Instead of the metonymic logic that usually governs his work, splaying out horizontally in a deliriously decentered fashion, never wholly committed to one place or time, this performance was all densely-packed metaphor, pulling more and more information into a vortex of potential meanings, until the sense of commitment to the here-and-now became almost painfully intense.

I suppose it wasn't an accident that Gelb had decided the day of show that he should interrupt his band's recreation of Valley of Rain with an interlude by Patsy's Rats, the pop-punk band led by his daughter and Christian Blunda. He needed the break. So did we. Patsy's Rats didn't play much, but what they did play was the perfect counterpart to the Giant Sand material, a lemon ice with which to cleanse the palate between heavy courses. This would have been the case even if Patsy wasn't his daughter – her band has no trouble winning over a crowd – but the family connection definitely made the juxtaposition resonate more deeply. When I had interviewed Gelb back in 2004, Patsy was just about the age my daughter is now, ready to start college. Now she is herself in her thirties, but all the more able to communicate that, even in the midst of a decades-long decline, simple rock and roll still has the power to make us feel forever young.

It makes for a wonderful contrast with her father, who has long demonstrated a geologist's capacity for bringing out the history in rock. For many years, I couldn't listen to back-to-basics punk bands like the Ramones without wondering what period their music was supposed to return us to. In one sense, it stripped psychedelic excess from the garage rock of the 1960s and easy sentiment from its precursors in the 1950s. But the end result didn't sound "pre-historic" so much as a-historical, a repudiation of the idea that origins must precede their descendants. Listening to Giant Sand the other night, though, Gelb's musical project suddenly took on a more profound dimension.

Instead of trying to pare rock down to an essence, he has spent decades exploring how to make outwardly extrinsic musical details seem every bit as essential as three-chord guitar riffs and a backbeat you can't lose. All those forays into folk, jazz, and even the odd bit of classical piano music were not attempts to free himself from the strictures of basic rock and roll, but to demonstrate that there was never any reason to heed them to begin with. Explaining how he decides which of his musical identities is best suited to a particular song, he emphasized this sense of liberation: "I kind of keep my ears and eyes open and figure it out as I go along, too, without making any hard and fast rules." It's a principle that extends just as easily into a future where rock may soon seem as intrinsically dated as jazz does now – this is the concern animating the controversial comments Bono just made – as it does into a past that preceded rock's emergence.

If we need rock and roll – as many aging Boomers seem to suggest – to make us feel young, we also need it every bit as much to make us feel old. To that extent, the feeling Howe Gelb communicated at the Valley of Rain show that this could be it, because tomorrow can never be taken for granted, is a fitting summation of his life's work. I used to think that his approach to music could be conceptualized as an attempt to delineate "lines of flight," ways of evading the burden of structure. After this last show, though, I think it might be more productive to turn that proposition on its head. In his refusal to abide by rules and regulations, he has demonstrated that it only seems necessary to flee when you are unable to feel free in the first place. Or, to extend this logic, when you realize that part of the problem lies in perceiving the first place as qualitatively different from the last one, or anywhere else in between.

Thinking back on that 2004 interview, I'm also reminded of something Gelb said about a recent show he had performed in Tucson with the "Danish" incarnation of Giant Sand. "They're so sweet, those guys," he declared, before noting that this sweetness might be limiting. "I don't know if they're nasty enough to get too electric. You have to have a Republican president, you've got to be a little bit mean, I think." When I replied that the final show I'd seen of the band's previous line-up, with Burns and Covertino, had been much louder, he explained that it hadn't been planned that way. "Well, you never know what's going on. I never know until that day. And that'll come out."

Perhaps as worried about the future as they ever been and confronted by another Republican head of state, one who is himself more than a little bit mean, many Americans are feeling the need to turn on their amps and get nasty. But in a world where art has been devalued by the ease with which it can be distributed and the dispersal of force that results from its inevitably fragmented reception, it is all the more important to remember that we can be together, as ferociously as the moment requires, without trying to tear each other apart. I'm not sure what Howe Gelb was thinking about "what's going on" in the hours leading up to Giant Sand's Boxing Day concert, but I'm certain that he saw an opportunity too precious to squander.

This piece was first published by Souciant.


Charlie Bertsch has been based in Tucson since 2000. He has written about music, film and books for a variety of publications, including The Oxford American, Zeek, Tikkun, Phoenix New Times and the pioneering internet publication Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life, which he helped to found back in 1992. He welcomes your feedback.

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Isabelle Adam/Flickr

Howe Gelb at a 2015 performance at London's Union Chapel.