Giant Sand Drift Into New York For Club Date

Alt-country band opens for Grant Lee Buffalo at the Mercury Lounge.

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

jes' folks.

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

Day."

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.