Howe Gelb, 2018 (Photo: Gabriel Sullivan)
Returns to Valley of Rain (Fire records) is a ferocious re-recording of Giant Sand’s classic 1985 debut album Valley of Rain. Originally recorded by Howe Gelb on vocals and guitar, Winston A. Watson and Tommy Larkins sharing drums duties and Scott Garber on bass, this incarnation of Giant Sand also consists of newer members Thøger T. Lund, Gabriel Sullivan and Annie Dolan.
The album holds a special place in the vast Giant Sand catalog, celebrated by both 25th and 30th anniversary reissues in recent years. When some of these old songs started to creep back into their setlist, it seemed appropriate to give the full album another shot with the proper Fender 30 amp, made only in the early 1980s, with the intention of making the album sound like it should’ve sounded. Says Fire Records about the process: “It was re-done for $400 and the same day and a half session time as the original. Scott Garber even drove up from Austin with his fretless to play so that the album is literally the originally line up for at least half of the songs. And yes, no pedal boards were used too.”
Giant Sand have never been easy to categorize, a fool’s errand that gets harder every passing years, as Howe Gelb and his various compadres have freely embraced new and disparate stylings into their seesawing sound. But whether labeled as roots rock, gospel, piano jazz, punk, latin or lo-fi or anything in between, the music always comes out with the identifiable signature of characteristic beatnik rhythms, shrewd lyrics and Howe Gelb’s warm, charismatic personality hovering above it all.
Gelb has travelled many a long and dusty mile to get to his place of prominence as an elder statesman of freewheeling Americana and “Erosion Rock”; a brand of music changing with the elements on a daily basis as nature intended, like Giant Sand, believing that continuous evolution should be a palpable element in music, as when songs were first handed over again and again, before the frozen capture of a recording studio.
I asked a couple of Howe Gelb’s numerous colleagues and friends over the years to share some insight on the enigmatic genius. Find out why Gelb is a smart cookie, how he embrace the random and eschew the obvious and why his modus operandi is best described as inspired chaos.
When we met…
M. Ward (singer-songwriter, and one half of She & Him):
It’s an honor to know Howe Gelb. He was one of the first real pals and confidants I had in this strange industry. I’m endlessly inspired by his piano-playing, his songs, his energy and everything in-between.
Giant Sand took me on my first-ever tour of Europe – in which I played my first and last performances of lap steel. Howe taught me that if you polish the song too heavily in rehearsals then you have polished the song too heavily in rehearsals.
Steve Wynn (The Dream Syndicate, The Baseball Project and more):
I first met Howe just moments after playing to the biggest audience of my life. It was Roskilde 1986 and The Dream Syndicate was a last-minute fill-in for The Cult. We arrived from Italy just about 30 minutes before we went on stage to 50,000 people. It started pouring as we finished and much of the crowd dispersed which was a shame since the next band was Giant Sand and they were fantastic. I watched them as the rain poured down and was instantly intrigued. Howe and I ended up talking well into the night, both exhilarated by the excitement of the evening.
Jason Lytle (Grandaddy):
I spent the first few of my “learning to write songs” years trying to sound like Giant Sand. The only problem is… I had never even heard Giant Sand or Howe Gelb. Someone I had crossed paths with in the early 90’s told me about a weird band that lived out in the desert in Arizona and was inventing their own brand of music that was sometimes punk, sometimes folky Neil Young and sometimes Thelonius Monk… and sometimes all of them even combined.
It set my imagination on fire.
It wasn’t until years later I finally bought a Giant Sand LP and was quite relieved it was as special as it was and kind of similar to what I hoped it would sound like.
John Parish (artist, producer and frequent Giant Sand collaborator):
The first Howe Gelb/Giant Sand record I worked on was Chore of Enchantment – my part of that album was recorded in Tucson in 1998, and it was my introduction to Howe’s method of working – best described as inspired chaos.
It was the first production session I did where I realized I had no control over events – the job became recognizing the inspiration within the chaos, and then making sure it was recorded, logged – before being edited down the line.
It is a challenging but exceedingly rewarding way of working, and pretty much unique to Howe.
Peter Holsapple (The db’s, Continental Drifters):
I met Howe through my friends Mark Walton and Robert Maché with whom I played in the Continental Drifters; my other bandmates Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson toured with Giant Sand promoting Center of the Universe. He seemed like a sweet guy, and if he was friends with my friends, well dammit I liked him too. I recorded a little on Glum when Howe was recording at Kingsway in New Orleans with Malcolm Burn and Trina Shoemaker. It was 1994, and it took a small slice of one afternoon.
KT Tunstall (singer and songwriter)
Howe co-produced my fourth LP with me, Invisibe Empire // Crescent Moon in Wavelab Studios, Tucson, AZ in 2012. Collaborating with him was a beautiful and formative experience for me. I had never worked with an artist-producer before, and he encouraged me to be much more experimental, less rigid about process and performance, and as we were recording live to tape, everything was much more focused on feel rather than technical perfection. I think the most memorable thing was that he invited me into his world – I stayed with him and his family during the recording, we took road trips with a guitar (one particularly memorable one to the Mexican border), so every aspect of that time was colored by his daily life, which is definitely colorful!!
As a person…
Open. He embraces new people and new things very easily. He welcomes The Random although there is a filter and an aesthetic to the pieces of the puzzle he lays out before letting the mayhem begin.
Strangely enough, the biggest influence that Howe had on my life was teaching me to actually take control. I was still the kind of artist who just blindly went from gig to gig, record to record under the control of managers and labels, not questioning or fully understanding the process and finding myself quite helpless when the cracks in the system began to appear.
Howe was living a different life – under the radar and with the sense of adventure that I remembered from the earliest days. With his help, I reconstructed my way of making music (on the fly, on the cheap), touring (hitting the places most bands don’t go) and releasing (small, hungry labels and more frequent releases). It was an eye-opener and creatively stimulating and still is my way of working to this day.
Thanks, Howe, for teaching me to embrace the random and to eschew the obvious.
Howe is a shaman of music who needs no setlist nor traditional groundwork to launch his ideas into meaningful spaces. I recommend sampling all of his Giant Sand records and Howe Gelb solo records and then buying them all.
He finds uniquely rare and beautiful melodies that you can’t trace to anything prior – except maybe songs from his own prior experiments or maybe Thelonious Monk’s – and that makes you think where could this music possibly have come from except for somewhere in southern Arizona.
Howe is a smart cookie, and one is well advised to listen carefully to what he says. We are not cut from the same songwriting cloth by any means, but I respect and admire his expansive and adventurous creative soul, and l hear the earth and air directly when I hear his songs.
Have YOU ever seen another Howe Gelb? I haven’t.
Howe is a bona fide one-off. No-one else could do Howe Gelb. He is unpredictable; he genuinely doesn’t ever play a song the same way twice. He has a phenomenal creative brain; quite surreal, mischievous, very quick. Very funny. There is always a lot of laughing spending time with him, and you don’t always know why. It’s kind of chaotic working with him, but somehow he always manages to pull off often large scale projects, it’s most suspicious. Is he a wizard?? He’a a joy to watch perform, a craftsman and a lightning quick creator, making things happen in the moment, very exciting. One of my favourite moments in his live performance was when he would sit at the grand piano and say, in an impossibly low voice, “I think this thing takes batteries”. He would then throw a handful of 9volt batteries inside the piano.
Original, creative, inspiring, frustrating, spontaneous, late, curious.
John Parish, Photo: Maria Mochnacz
The person that he is …is the musician that he is. That is…. I think he sounds like the sort of guy that he is. I do like it when that happens. It means you’re usually getting the real goods when you hear what he is working on/putting out there.
I’ve said enough above about his lack of fear in accepting unexpected pleasures, random events, changes and following whatever path seems interesting from record to record, tour to tour and even from moment to moment. But none of that would work if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s a damn good guitarist and pianist. You gotta have the goods to back up the concept or else you’re left with nothing but a hollow manifesto.
I think Howe is very stubborn in his creative choices, and that protects him and his band from becoming creatively diluted. Lyrically, his material comes from such a singular place that it couldn’t be anyone else, so his signature sound and style will always be inimitable. He also has the most amazing baritone voice, and has found a delivery syle that immediately convinces you that what he’s conveying is worth listening listening to.
A fun fact at the end…
Howe taught me that time is elastic. I’ve never been the same since.
Howe likes orange things. For snacks, he would hold out a carrot and a tangerine and say, “want something orange?”
He likes to eat lunch at Cafe Poca Cosa.
He came to my house for coffee one morning when I lived in Portland Oregon. I asked him if he would like sugar or agave (a plant based sweetener) in his coffee. He said: “I’ll take agave”. We sat outside with our coffees and he was surprised that what he was drinking was NOT coffee with a shot of tequila in it…. as he had a momentary lapse and mistook agave for some kind of tequila. I laughed …but was also impressed that he would show up at my home in the morning and be up for starting the day off with me over a coffee/tequila drink. (Sounds horrible by the way….hahaha!)
I was living out in Marina Del Rey, California for a few years in the late 80’s. I had a mildewed little bungalow that was supposed to be destroyed at any moment (strangely enough, it’s still there to this day) so I was able to rent it cheaply while living just blocks from the beach in a neighborhood much fancier than my means. I didn’t have a car – a bike was enough in that beach community – but Howe offered me to take care of his hand-illustrated, graffitied grey Barracuda before he went on one of his lengthy tours. I loved it. Push-button transmission and everything. Only thing was that the rich neighbors didn’t agree. One morning I went to get the car and found a note under the windshield. “Please don’t park this car around here. It is an eyesore.” Ha-ha – if only they knew that the car belonged to and had been painted by an international rock star (and that it would show up as the cover art for a Leaving Trains record!)