From Desert Rock to Gypsy

Giant Sand legend Howe Gelb joins the Tucson Music Hall of Fame

Howe Gelb is talking about the forthcoming Giant Sand album, but what he's saying could also describe his general artistic approach over a storied career in Tucson music.

"This new record is a blend of the absurd reasoning of dreams and the cold, hard logic of being awake," he says.

Called by some the godfather of alt-country, and dubbed by others the elder ambassador of desert rock, Gelb hems and haws at such labels. But there's no arguing the point that he has been playing rock, country, alternative, blues, jazz, avant-garde, gospel and now gypsy music for more than 30 years in Tucson.

He was honored as this year's inductee into the Tucson Music Hall of Fame during the Tucson Area Music Awards, aka the TAMMIES, on Wednesday, Sept. 8, at the Rialto Theatre.

Relaxing on a Sunday morning at the near-downtown home he shares with wife, Sofie, and two of his three kids (daughter Patsy is grown and away at art school), Gelb discusses his decades as a musician—but he's also got current projects on his mind.

"When we started recording here, no one knew how to make a record. Nobody knew what to do with a record, how to get it out there. The information in this town was always remote. There was no Internet, no cell phones, no way to check things out or learn them."

Gelb's horizons weren't as wide then, either. He has since lived in New Mexico, New York City and California. He also plays all over the globe, bouncing around from Denmark to Spain to Canada to Greenland, but he limits his touring to dollops of three weeks at a time, so he can return to his family in Tucson.

Still, he doesn't often play in Tucson anymore—just for special events, many of them informal.

"It's always as if when I am playing here, I'm running out the door, and I'll get a new idea for some gadget or some piece of equipment, and I'll grab it and run down there and set it up and not know whether it works or not ... just the way you do in your home, where you can come up with stuff and try new things out, and everyone here is your family, or you know them like they are."

Born in Pennsylvania 53 years ago, Gelb came to Tucson in the early 1970s, escaping a cataclysmic flood and following his dad, who had recently remarried and settled in the desert. By the beginning of the '80s, Howe began playing with Giant Sandworms, now remembered as a legendary Tucson band.

Giant Sandworms included his close friend Rainer Ptacek, a renowned blues-oriented slide guitarist. A beloved Tucson musician, Ptacek died from brain cancer in 1997, and you can't talk long with Gelb without his name coming up.

In 1985, Giant Sandworms evolved into Giant Sand and released the album Valley of Rain. Since then, the band has released dozens of albums and acted as a vehicle through which many of Tucson's best musicians have revolved in and out. Some of the most prominent were drummer John Convertino and bassist Joey Burns, who eventually left to form Calexico.

Gelb also has played with other side projects: the honky-tonk Band of Blacky Ranchette; OP8, a collaboration with Lisa Germano; Arizona Amp and Alternator; Howe Gelb and His Melted Wires, essentially half-Giant Sand and half-Calexico; and a partnership with a Canadian gospel choir, documented on both the album 'Sno Angel Like You and a live CD/DVD set.

Gelb has performed with countless musicians, including Steve Wynn, Scout Niblett, M. Ward, Grandaddy, PJ Harvey, Neko Case, John Parish, Vic Chesnutt, Evan Dando, Juliana Hatfield, Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Lucinda Williams, Malcolm Burn and Victoria Williams.

Either under his own name or with Giant Sand, Gelb has recorded for such labels as Enigma, Homestead, Restless, V2, Thrill Jockey and Yep Roc.

There's a new Giant Sand record, Blurry Blue Mountain, due out this fall on the British label Fire Records, which until now has primarily reissued albums that had gone out of print.

"The meeting was happenstance and fortuitous. Usually, that's the way we roll," Gelb says of his arrangement with Fire.

"They're going to release about 30 back-catalog albums of ours, and they made a separate deal for the new record. So we figure we'll give it a shot and enjoy some fresh energy putting out the old stuff."

For the last several years, Giant Sand has had a relatively stable lineup in guitarist Anders Pedersen, bassist Thøger Lund and drummer Peter Dombernowsky. Keyboardist and guitarist Nikolaj Heyman (who also has a band, Western Stars, with his wife, Cecilia Krill) is the latest addition to the Giant Sand fold. Like the others, Heyman is originally from Denmark.

Gelb's most recent project is A Band of Gypsies, with which he recorded in Córdoba, Spain. The group, featuring guitarist extraordinaire Raimundo Amador, has released an album, Alegrías, which is only available in Tucson on vinyl at M.A.S.T., an art gallery and retail space in which Sofie is a partner.

Invited by producer Fernando Vacas, Gelb recorded with his Spanish compatriots in a converted pigeon coop on the roof of Vacas' house. He loves playing, and being, in Spain.

"When I'm in Córdoba, that place seems more here than here. The buildings have the same wobble as the old adobes here—the same smiles over there, the same lull, the same time frame."

Finding new ways to follow his muse allows Gelb to stay fresh, he says.

Performing with the Spanish gypsies gives Gelb "a genuine pleasure to feel that something is new. ... And to be surrounded by a small army of these guitar players—when you sing something right or play lick a certain way, you get that immediate response: Somebody hits you with an 'ole' or a little underlying 'ahh' or 'oww,' and they let you know right away you did something right. It's a pretty wonderful way of playing music."

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