Bigger is better— this time, anyway

Giant(er) Sand tours as a seven-piece.

GIANT SAND, JESSE SYKES TRIO

Crocodile, 441-5611, $12 9 p.m. Wed., April 3

LAST NOVEMBER, Giant Sand's Howe Gelb hosted an evening of music at London's Barbican Hall for a festival called Beyond Nashville. Playing both emcee and musical director in front of an audience of 2,000, Gelb directed traffic as a number of musicians wandered on and off the stage, embellishing upon the trio's mixed palette of panoramic desert rock, eerie country tunes, bluesy piano dirges, and subdued jazz.

Along with Gelb and regular Giant Sand bassist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino (both of Calexico these days), the expanded Giant Sand lineup included a violinist, a second bassist, a second guitarist, and a trumpeter. A tribute to Gelb and his band's collegial influence, additional guests PJ Harvey, Evan Dando, the duo of Lambchop's Kurt Wagner and Vic Chesnutt, Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous, and Harvey collaborator John Parish were there to sing or play a song or two as well. Not surprisingly, the night was a rousing success, and many London magazines and papers crowned it the show of the year.

Unfortunately, that all-star hootenanny can't happen every night, but Giant Sand is using an expanded seven-piece lineup for its current U.S. tour. According to Gelb, "It's more luxurious in that you have people jumping in and out of different songs without having to be on every one. So you get more of a feeling of different material coming from different eras rather than just one session or album. That's our hope. It's what keeps us pizzazzed."

"We've become masters at 'how about this?' It was intentional to become unintentional from [1988's] Long Stem Rant on," Gelb adds. For Gelb, this means going wherever the music takes him, sometimes beginning a song on guitar before playing piano for the chorus, then adding a solo on guitar as his foot taps various effects to get the exact sound he's looking for at that moment. Convertino and Burns provide supple support for Gelb's mercurial musical whims. Though the band was started in the early '80s, the two have been with him for a decade or more, and it takes a lot for them or Gelb to be surprised by the intentionally unintentional. Now with additional members and sounds, the band hopes to again make things less predictable.

This same intentionally unintentional process went into the band's brand-new Cover Magazine (Thrill Jockey), an album of cover songs (except for one Gelb original). "The only forethought was to see how much fun we could have in the studio, because we hadn't been in one for a while," Gelb explains. "It quickly became apparent that that was where the project was going, and it was nice not to be so tethered to the writing. It also had to be more choreless than the last one [2000's Chore of Enchantment]. It had to exhibit that ability to have some fun, to have a lightness."

Most of the material was recorded on the first take, and one imagines Gelb plucking out the opening chords to something and then the others joining in, making up their parts, creating imperfect but inspired musical acrobatics without a net. The band seems to work best when they're feeling their way along in a stumbling but fragile version of "The Beat Goes On," or creating a disjointed but visceral version of X's "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline," or goofing off on a loungey version of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man." While the band typically tours with material for the next album, both Gelb and Convertino say that playing the covers has been so much fun that they'll likely play them for now.

That is, until they change their mind. "It's a wild ride," Convertino says. "I don't think I've ever been bored playing with Howe, and it's sort of like that for the audience. These days it's so much easier for people to sit back and be thrilled with dazzling shows. A Giant Sand show is more like reading a book—you kind of have to pay attention to where it's going, rather than just letting it feed you."

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