NEW YORK -- Howe Gelb was sitting on the stage of the Mercury
Lounge in a folding chair, playing guitar and singing. He was relaxed, homey.
Before each song, he made a dedication: "This is for the pregnant people in the
audience." He meant his seven-and-a-half-months-along friend, who was
beaming from the audience as she watched him perform. At one point, Gelb
reached over and grabbed an unattended glass of whiskey and took a sip. He's
Gelb is the singer and guitarist in Giant Sand, an Arizona-based post-punk trio
that plays country music. Some call it "y'all-ternative," but it's the kind of country
music that you'd expect to hear when you're sitting on the dusty porch of a
desert bar, red sand blowing across your feet, and someone picks up a guitar.
The Mercury Lounge is worlds away from that dusty front porch. It's a
pretentious, big-city joint where music industry types hang out. This past
Wednesday night, Gelb, an unpretentious guy in a plaid flannel shirt, jeans and
worn, dusty boots, was scheduled to open for contemporary country-rockers
Grant Lee Buffalo at the Mercury.
It was billed as Gelb in a solo performance, but his Giant Sand bandmates --
drummer John Covertino and bass player Joe Burns -- joined him for a 40-
minute performance that was light on material and heavy on extended jams.
Gelb wanted the crowd's attention. "Tell me something, tell me something, tell
me something. Tell me if you've ever felt this way," he asked, as he began a
looping song called "This Is Pontiac and the Kings of Trajectory."
"Giant Sand has so many records that I can't tell if this song is brand new or
really, really old," said awe-struck fan John Harris, 30, from Brooklyn.
Gelb is, in fact, so prolific that he's had at least two side projects (Blacky
Ranchette and OP8) and recorded more than a dozen official Giant Sand
records. The band has even bootlegged its own stuff and put it out, since record
company contracts generally only want one record a year and Giant Sand just
makes too much music.
Ironically, however, for this performance, they played only five or six songs. It
was tough to tell because they kept noodling and stretching out the material.
"Shape of a Woman" was a stand-out, as was a waltz called "Way To End The
The music came out sounding laconic, loping and dry like the desert they live in.
And that's why it worked. When they jam, it's a crackly improvisation that spins
out from Gelb as he plays guitar and messes with foot-pedal effects. One
aficionado in the crowd muttered that, even though he knows guitar, he was
having a hard time following Gelb.
And these easygoing Giant Sand guys with their dusty boots and slow moves
made it seem effortless.
As they wound down, Gelb turned off his guitar and held up his electronic
sampler, which was sustaining a clear guitar note. "Rainer," he said, simply,
meaning his friend and musical collaborator Rainer Ptacek, who died last year
of cancer. (A tribute CD, The Inner Flame, offers tracks by ex-Led
Zeppelin screamer Robert Plant and others.)
It was a nice close to the set, and the audience showered the trio with applause.
Why aren't they better known? Maybe because Gelb just ain't that interested in
being a rock star. Earlier, he was standing at the bar near the door, buying
whiskey for Covertino and Burns, not even trying to hide out.
These guys aren't posing, they're just playin'.
Grant Lee Buffalo, on the other hand, is sort-of like Giant Sand but without any
edge. "They're the Hooters of the '90s," said Steve Collins from West Covina,
Calif., as he left the club. They have a country twang, but they're really over-
produced and the songs follow really standard structures. Still, most of the
customers seemed satisfied with Grant Lee's show.
In fact, some were downright thrilled.
"I got their tape in a remainder bin for $2, and I've loved them ever since!" said a
26-year-old who called himself simply Joe from Long Island.
Rock on, Joe.