When we started this ‘Essentials’ series we stated we would be delving into the back catalogue of prominent Americana artists and bringing you our estimation of either their top ten albums or their top ten tracks. When it comes to Howe Gelb, a man with around 70 albums under his belt, it makes sense to concentrate on the albums while picking a song from each to represent the disc. There’s no way one could properly encapsulate such a varied history in one small article but here’s our attempt at the “essential” Howe Gelb.
Gelb is originally from Pennsylvania but his musical career has been based in California and Arizona and in particular, in Tucson. Starting off under the name of Giant Sandworms, who then became Giant Sand alongside his more “countrified” project, The Band of Blacky Ranchette, Gelb has recorded under the name of, among others, OP8, Arizona Amp & Alternator and Giant Giant Sand along with a slew of solo albums. He’s an inveterate collaborator and definitely a musical maverick. There’s a long list of artists who have appeared on the albums including Lucinda and Victoria Williams, Lisa Germano, Juliana Hatfield, Susan Cowsill, Vicki Peterson, Vic Chesnutt, Neko Case, P J Harvey, Matt Ward, Jason Lyttle, Chris Cacavas and, of course, Joey Burns and John Convertino. The late Rainer Ptacek co-founded Giant Sandworms with Gelb and was an integral part of The Band Of Blacky Ranchette. And while the original Giant Sand were tagged by many as “desert rock” (Gelb prefers to call it “erosion rock”) he has ranged over many musical territories including Gospel, flamenco, lounge lizard crooning and solo piano recordings which display his affection for Thelonious Monk.
While our format requires that the albums are listed in descending order, essentially this is a chronological account and not a top 10 list. Comparisons are for the birds and Gelb is so eclectic (and busy reinvigorating his past via a host of rereleases which have proved a treasure trove for fans) that a definitive list is nigh on impossible. Nevertheless, here’s our take on “The Godfather of Alt Country,” a term which, while not causing him sleepless nights, probably doesn’t rest well with him. We would cast a further net – a combination of beat poetry, Neil Young and Dylan and James Joyce and Faulkner, all delivered with the beating heart of rock’n’roll.
Number 10 : The Band Of Blacky Ranchette Heartland (1986)
We’ll kick off with The Band Of Blacky Ranchette’s second album, released in 1986. ‘Heartland’ features a five-piece band (Gelb, Rainer on slide guitar and Dobro, Jacob Martinez on bass, Tom Larkins, drums and Neil Harry, pedal steel) who are tightly focussed and turn in an almost perfect slice of somewhat skewed country rock. The title song, a straightforward country lament with honky tonk piano and creamy pedal steel is nothing less than gorgeous.’ All Done In’ lopes along with Harry and Ptacek delivering superb solos and ‘Underground Train’ and ‘Roof’s On Fire’ both feature some ferocious ensemble playing. Check out ‘Moon Over Memphis’ to hear just how well this crew interact with each other and savour Ptacek’s Dobro skills.
Number 9 : Giant Sand Love Songs (1988)
Perhaps the pick of the early Giant Sand albums, 1988’s ‘Love Songs’ is the debut of John Convertino on drums and has Chris Cacavas on keyboards and several of its songs were long time staples in live sets. Gelb’s guitar thrashes dominate many of the songs with Neil Young like howls on ‘Mad Dog A Man’ while ‘Mountain Of Love’ rattles along with Gelb inhabiting the ghost of Elmore James and ‘Love Like A Train’ is a maelstrom of wah-wah wizardry. The hustle and bustle of ‘Fingernail Moon, Barracuda And Me’ meanwhile finds Gelb playing all instruments himself. Our pick of the songs is the rough and tumble of ‘Wearing The Robes Of Bible Black’.
Number 8 : Giant Sand Ramp (1991)
It’s a toss up as to whether ‘Ramp’ or ‘Glum’ should feature next. ‘Glum’, recorded in New Orleans, finds Gelb eking out some existential angst amid some glorious songs (‘Happenstance’, ‘Spun’) but ‘Ramp’ finds the band (with Joey Burns now enlisted) in fine fettle. There are touches of Neil Young and Crazy Horse in the scorching mayhem of ‘Always Horses Coming’ while ‘Seldom Matters’ is basically a Blacky Ranchette song smuggled in. Our favourite here has always been the sprite mixture of string band and power chords of ‘Wonder’ with Victoria Williams excelling as Gelb’s vocal foil.
Number 7 : Giant Sand Chore Of Enchantment (1999)
The pinnacle of Giant Sand is Chore Of Enchantment, an album recorded as Gelb tried to come to terms with the tragic death of Ptacek, and recorded for a major label, V2, who then turned it down. Undeterred, Gelb sold his cache of promo discs online until the album was picked up by Thrill Jockey in the States and Loose Music here in the UK. With the legendary Jim Dickinson on board, co-producing with John Parish, it’s the most fully realised Giant Sand album, richly textured with all of the oinks and sqoinks favoured by Gelb perfectly realised. Dedicated to the late Rainer, it’s an immersive listen.
Number 6 : Howe Gelb Confluence (2001)
Confluence is the third official solo Gelb album and it earns its place here as Gelb ploughs on in a similar fashion to ‘Chore Of Enchantment’. In reality, there’s little to differentiate his recordings under his various nom de plumes by now as Gelb is really existing in his own universe. Anyhow, it spawned one of his best-known songs, ‘Blue Marble Girl’.
Number 5 : Howe Gelb Sno Angel (2006)
In 2006, Gelb kind of branched out with an album of reinvigorated songs recorded in Canada with the Voices Of Praise Gospel Choir. A choice example of happenstance, he had appeared at a festival and was taken by the opportunity to record with a Gospel troupe. He toured with the ensemble to great acclaim and the album is probably a gateway for many into the weird and wonderful world of Howe Gelb. There’s a grand live recording of them available on ‘Sno Angel Winging It (Live)’ and, if you are so inclined, you can find Gelb again reimagining many of his songs, this time with a Flamenco flavour, on the excellent ‘Alegrias’, recorded in Spain.
Number 4 : Giant Sand Provisions (2008)
Giant Sand, meanwhile, tumbled on with Gelb replacing his erstwhile Calexico colleagues with a Scandinavian crew who were to prove as inventive and supple. 2008’s ‘Provisions’ is the grown up cousin to the early Giant Sand albums. The same dusty and windblown scatters of rock and roll and country continue to tumble and tear. ‘Can Do’ rollicks along with a Johnny Cash chickaboom rhythm while ‘Increment Of Love’ creeps along wonderfully with Gelb’s lyrics quite Joycean. ‘Stranded Pearl’, a duet with Isobel Campbell, finds Gelb indulging in his love of wordplay and alliteration.
Numbers 3 & 2 : Howe Gelb Dust Bowl and The Coincidentalist (2013)
2013 saw two solo releases which serve to illustrate Gelb’s range. ‘Dust Bowl’ is essentially Gelb on his own, playing guitar, piano and banjo while ‘The Coincidentalist’ is a band effort with a fine array of guests. They are connected by the striking portraits of Gelb on the album covers, photographed by Erwin Verstappen using an old wet plate process. ‘Windblown Waltz’ is a fine example of the stripped back sound of ‘Dust Bowl’ while ‘Vortexas’, with guest vocalist Bonnie Prince Billy, finds Gelb growing into becoming more of a crooner, a direction he has since pursued on subsequent solo albums.
Number 1 Giant Giant Sand Tucson: A Country Rock Opera. (2012)
One year earlier, Gelb had assembled a 12 piece band titled Giant Giant Sand and released ‘Tucson: a country rock opera’. One gets the sense that the subtitle is a bit tongue in cheek and while there is a story of sorts in an accompanying booklet, the songs recall the earlier Blacky Ranchette releases. It’s a whirly gig listen with the band calling in country, mariachi, cumbia and Hispanic influences over the course of 19 songs. Gabriel Sullivan and Brian Lopez of Tucson rockers XIXA are heavily involved adding to the album’s variety. Reviews at the time called it sprawling but, in essence, Gelb has sprawled all over the map throughout his career.
Gelb remains prolific and oh so eclectic with regular solo releases and recent re recordings of early Giant Sand albums added to his lengthy catalogue. A new album, recorded with a Belgian band, The Colorist Orchestra, is due in July. This short selection can’t really do the man justice but, hopefully, it will entice some folk in who have yet to experience the wonderful world of Howe Gelb and please feel free to agree/disagree in the comments below.