A friend suggested I wait to publish anything on Howe Gelb’s latest project until I saw the guy play piano. Last night, the Giant Sand (now Giant Giant Sand) mastermind performed solo at Joe’s Pub in New York. I’d seen Gelb play a handful of other times – mostly when he’s on guitar, mostly with other people.
My friend was right, though. Gelb is a divine piano player, it brought in a new dimension. He has an ease around the keyboard. He likes to lay an object on some of the strings so there’s vibration and a ping when the hammer hits.
What I like about his playing – and his singing, and his songs – is that it’s unpretentious with a dash of tension. Gelb has made a lot of records over the last three decades, and now he’s prepared his first “country rock opera,” “Tucson.” It, too, is unpretentious; in spite of the daunting narrative structure that the term “opera” can bring to a traditional singer-songwriter, Gelb thrives in those kinds of constraints.
Giant Sand records have been written on the spot, in the studio or on the drive on the way to the studio. He’s played consistently with Denmark musicians Thøger T. Lund, Peter Dombernowski, Anders Pederesen and Nikolaj Heyman over the last ten years, but he’s also mixed in elements like a gospel choir or a horns sections from album to album. Or, y’know, made some sessions into an opera.
“Music has always been about handing it over -- music as evolution, it has to keep changing,” he said in our recent interview. He spoke from his longtime home of Tucson, the album’s namesake. “I dared myself to plan a concept, and to strip away the stuff that isn’t ‘it’ or meant for ‘it.’ I took a pretty good gamble that the songs we were gonna write are already inside of us.”
Gelb first had the “nagging notion” of making an opera around 1978, but like so many of his projects, he didn’t want to force it. Last year, he played music festival in Berlin, with “this big band which manifested itself by accident or by fate. None of us had gotten together until the moment we were on stage.” The event commissioned artists that represented deserts from around the world, a construct for which Gelb is well-suited. The group – who barely knew each other but tangentially all had connections to Denmark and Tuscon – began jamming on a cumbia, a seed planted that would later become “Caranito” on “Tucson.”
“If you’re hittin’ it, it’s gonna have a zing that you can never plan for. It got higher and higher in our set. It was wonderful night, and it was evident that something was in play.”
The chemistry hit Gelb’s bloodstream right away and after another, similar gig in Switzerland, he and his crew with the next day the group – which included a strings section and pedal steel player Maggie Bjorklund – hit the studio. Different singers sang, a whole crop of styles were explored. Then the musicians dispersed some songs got mixed down and out of that, a structure arose.
“Permeating my waking moments of near-sleep was a discussion in my head: can I make an opera taken from songs never intended for an opera?” Gelb said. “Is there a story in here? There were pieces of stories lying around, all the talent in the world who became the different characters. I fell ass-backwards into an opera.”
Gelb sequenced the 19 songs of “Tucson” into a narrative that made sense, wrote the whole treatment for the storyline in an hour and a half.
The cover photo of “Tucson” is a gorgeous shot of its namesake, but the inside booklet is the illustrated treatment with Gelb’s own words and art by Victor Coyote. Check out our exclusive first-look at the work below.
While the lead character is male, he’s orbited by a couple strong female characters, which make for some strongly feminine songs. It’s another opportunity for Gelb to integrate female singers into the rep, which he’s done on Giant Sand albums in the past with artists like Victoria Williams, Neko Case, Juliana Hatfield, PJ Harvey and Isobel Campbell. He helped champion many of those careers, to the benefit of so many of his songs. I asked why uses women's voices so often.
“One, it’s simple as maternal. The first thing you hear is a heartbeat, white noise and your mother’s voice. Two, it’s purely sexual. We as artist have to be pro-creative.”
“Like, you’re in charge of keeping the species going…”
“You mean f*ckin’? Hey, I don’t mind being a foot soldier for that cause.”
Again, unpretentious, with a little bit of tension.