A GUEST POSTING by HYBRID SOC PROF,
our Michigan Correspondent
There’s no way to summarize the extent to which my musical life over the last three decades is bound up with Giant Sand, Howe Gelb, and all those he’s played with, promoted or helped out.
I first ran into the band when Homestead Records sent The Love Songs to the university radio station in 1988. A few months later, I was in Logos – our preferred new and used record/book store in Santa Cruz (finally driven out of business by high rents and declining sales in 2018) – and bought the double LP collection/sampler, Giant Sandwich, in 1989. The weirdness of The Love Songs seemed to be in keeping with the off-kilter material coming out from Wall of Voodoo or House of Freaks, it was a little singer-songwriter, a little art rock, a little alt-country (not that we had the term at that point) and a little lounge (which hadn’t happened yet.) It was poetic and strange, angular and visual… did I say it was weird? I really loved it. Fingernail Moon, Barracuda and Me is the song in the set, below, from The Love Songs.
But, the Giant Sandwich collection, that was another thing altogether. It was selections from the first two Giant Sand records, Valley of Rain (1985) and Ballad of a Thin Line Man (1986) – which were much more raucous and rocking affairs and then a bunch of songs – released and unreleased – from Howe Gelb’s “other band/alter ego,” The Band of Blacky Ranchette – which is fractured country, really fractured. Hard Man to Get to Know is here from the double LP, though initially on Ballad of a Thin Line Man. Originally on The Valley of Rain, I’ve included the remastered version of October Anywhere from Beyond the Valley of Rain (2015). Given the volume of the music Giant Sand, alone, has produced since the mid-80s, I’ve included no tunes from side projects, from Blacky to OP8 (1997, with Lisa Germano) to Howe Gelb and the Band of Gypsies (2010) or anything from Howe’s solo recordings, alone or in partnership with others.
It turned out that Giant Sand was from Tucson, Arizona, and, as far as I can tell, Tuscon had the most peripatetic and chaotic, non-linear and diverse music scene in the US. The city either lacked a musical identity or didn’t care to have one. Green on Red’s political quasi-country rock was from there as was the space rock of Black Sun Ensemble and the rip-roaring blues rock of Rainer and Das Combo. Giant Sand is in there overlapping with but rejecting it all. The blues and space and instrumental thing seem to have real purchase, though, given the subsequent rise of Bob Log III, Tom Wallbank and the Ambassadors, The Friends of Dean Martinez and the Giant Sand splinter band, Calexico. When I attended the 20th Anniversary of Club Congress – a key venue there – in 2005, it also became clear that, as happens in so many smaller cities, everyone knows and, at one point or another, has played with each other.
The band appears to have imploded after The Love Songs and Long Stem Rant is Howe Gelb and John Convertino generating a glorious two-man din in a barn. I’ve included Searchlight from that record.
Swerve (1989), Ramp (1991), Center of the Universe (1992) and Purge and Slouch (1993) all seemed to represent a feeling out process – with periodic moments of majesty – as Howe, Convertino and Joey Burns were variously joined by Rainer Ptacek, Victoria Williams, Paula-Jean Brown and others in this or that project. The band built and grew – all the while as Howe’s best friend, Rainer, battled with brain cancer, apparently winning, only to have it return and lead to his death. I’ve included Howe and Rainer’s collaboration on the song, The Inner Flame, from the extraordinary tribute album of that name in the set released in 1997 with Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Emmylou Harris, Vic Chesnutt, Jonathan Richman and others along for the ride.
Coming out of that period, the band earned a major label contract with Imago. The record they produced, Glum, is amazing, Rainer’s passing is all over it and this selection starts off with the oh-so 1994 explosive guitar rocker, Happenstance… lyrically, all about living with and through death. As happens too often, personnel shifts at the label, problems with distribution and more effectively ended the label as wrecked the release of the record. I got one of the first small set distributed at Amoeba Records, in San Francisco, but the CDs almost immediately disappeared. An official “Bootleg” was released 7 years later and an expanded version was released as part of re-release of the band’s whole catalog around it’s the 25th anniversary.
There are no cuts from the live recording of a WFMU radio show, the Backyard Barbecue Broadcast, but, if you get a chance, the 22-minute Barbecue Suite is highly recommended. Bill Elm, of The Friends of Dean Martinez, plays wonderful slide guitar.
Goods and Services (1995) is OK but Chore of Enchantment, released in 1999, is another masterpiece. While it was the swansong for Convertino and Burns – who went off and formed Calexico – the band couldn’t be tighter, the songs played and produced any better. I was tempted to include more than one but settled for my favorite, Shiver, which has a hint of the OP8 sound the band generated with Lisa Germano.
In 2000, the band contributed the song Hard on Things to Bloodshot Records’ collection, Down to the Promised Land and, while it’s also on a solo record, I like it too much not to include it here.
2002’s Cover Magazine is, get this, a cover record with quite singular versions of “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline”, “Iron Man,” “The Beat Goes On,” “Red Right Hand,” and “King of the Road.” While it’s also on Cover Magazine, I like the live version – one of about hundred versions Howe has recorded – of Blue Marble Girl and the one here is from 2002’s Infiltration of Dreams CD.
2004’s Is all Over the Map provides the song Remote to finish off this collection.
There’s good material but nothing to fall in a top 12 list on proVISIONS (2008), but I’ve included Monk’s Mountain from the Special Edition of Blurry Blue Mountain (2010). Again, Tucson (2012) is a very nice record but for reasons of flow, I included Hurtin’ Habit from Heartbreak Pass (2015) which I consider the bands final record even though there was a band blending early and late and new members was collected to re-record the first Valley of Rain songs. Apparently, there’s anticipated to be a tour of just those songs this summer.
I believe that, between Fire and New West Records, most of the music is still in print. If you’re interested in a different history Howe Gelb’s website provides one under the Bio tab and a website called sa-wa-ro has a complete discography.
1. Happenstance (from Glum, 1994)
2. October Anywhere (from Beyond The Valley of Rain, 2015)
3. Fingernail Moon, Barracuda and Me (from The Love Songs, 1988)
4. Searchlight (from Long Stem Rant, 1989)
5. Monk’s Mountain (from Blurry Blue Mountain, 2010)
6. Blue Marble Girl (from Inflirtraion of Dreams, 2002)
7. Shiver (from Chore of Enchantment, 1999)
8. The Inner Flame (from The Inner Flame – A Rainer Ptacek Tribute Album , 1997)
9. Hard On Things (from Down to The Promised Land compilation, 2000)
10. Hurtin’ Habit (from Heartbreak Pass, 2015)
11. Hard Man To Get To Know (from Ballad of A Thin Line Man, 1986)
12. Remote (from Is All Over The Map, 2004)