As is always the case with a Howe Gelb experience, last night's Giant Sand gig at the Echo was not without its quirks. A buzzy cable was as annoying as a horsefly in a pup tent. Gelb's dinky keyboard wouldn't stay situated on the even dinkier piano stand, so the longtime Arizona songwriter (who got his start in the mid 1980s L.A. cow punk scene) ended up with the Casio-sized instrument on his lap, where he banged on it like it were a baby grand — could barely control the thing as he plonked his way through a survey of his 25-year (!) body of work. There was some amp confusion, which resulted in a funny little between-song Getrude-Stein-esque word poem/query re: amps/amplification/amplitude.
But, then, Loose is Gelb's middle name. Since his beginnings as a twangy miscreant with a hollow body and a fiesta of effects pedals, the lanky, handsome man (he looks like Rolling Thunder-era Dylan) has been hellbent on creating crumbling mumbled guitar rock songs, a kindred to Tom Waits and Neil Young, kinda sorta Sun Ra in denim and a trucker's hat. Chords and guitar lines fly all over the place in Giant Sand songs, as though the core melodies and patterns that structure the song had just experienced a Big Bang. Chords get jumbled and inverted and reverted and retarded until it's hard to know what's happening where and when.
It's a kinda nightmare scenario for anyone looking to sit in with them. It's not like you can watch Gelb's fretboard meanderings and replicate them; you'd end up with a few broken fingers. So when M. Ward ambled onto stage in a brown cowboy shirt and black jeans, he was facing an abyss. No problemo. After a little bit of amp juggling and general chaos, the band (three Norwegians and Gelb) and Ward, who has guested on miscellaneous Gelb projects including Giant Sand's new Provisions, turned in rousing versions of Sand songs. I don't know which ones, sorry. In fact, Gelb's like Dylan in this respect. He's got hundreds of songs, never performs them the same way twice. I barely recognized “Wearing the Robe of Bible Black,” and it's one of my favorites. Ditto “Loving Cup.”
Playing Gelb's banged-up hollow body, Ward spun a few weirdo rockabilly-esque runs, spit some chords out. Gelb playfully nudged him to get in front of the mic for some harmonizing, but Ward was content to stay in the back halfway bent over trying to keep up with the Sand's freakazoid desert rock. Three songs later he was gone (though he'll be back at the Wiltern as half of She & Him, his project with Zooey Deschanel, on November 1), and Giant Sand continued on. Long may they do just that. They're a national treasure — buried in the desert.
(Note: in addition to the above being one of my favorite videos, note the presence of Calexico's Joey Burns on bass and John Covertino on drums in both YouTube clips. The two got their start as part of Giant Sand. In fact, the first time I saw the band, at a little St. Louis club on the banks of the Mississippi, Gelb and Covertino were touring as a duo in a little Honda Accord.)
Here's a version of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra's “Sand,” as performed by OP8, Giant Sand's one-off project with Lisa Germano.