Giant Sand

[24 April 2002]

By Jody Beth Rosen


xhaustion. Dehydration. Phantom hangovers—you’ve hardly had anything to drink, but the suggestion that the next day should bring illness actually brings on headache and nausea. Cut to: Knitting Factory, 12 April, where I sweated and shuffled through a Giant Sand set cast upon the eve of an unforgiving heat wave.

I do like Howe Gelb, even if he’s an easy performer to take for granted, like I take David Berman, Mark Kozelek, and Mark Eitzel for granted (Eitzel has that same persona, the slack older-guy you’d see penning chord progressions inside a napkin’s coffee ring at the all-night pancake house—the educated world-weary post-beatnik with a wounded heart, and a record collection to kill for). I wouldn’t say I was ever a Giant Sand fan. I wouldn’t go that far. But I’ve been aware of them; if there was a review of a new record, I read it; if I heard their song on WFMU, I didn’t leave the room for a beer. Out in Portland, I smiled in recognition from the 15 Belmont, tickled that a falafel place along the route advertised a “Giant Sand” on an outside billboard.

It was one of those weird, edgy nights. I didn’t leave the house ‘til 15 minutes before start time, and I took a cab into downtown Manhattan—I was pleased to get out for the evening, but felt a little achy and testy. Slumped into the vinyl upholstery all the way to Leonard St.; feverish, cognizant in that moment only of the broadest concertgoing signifiers, like “line”, “crowd”, “smoke”, “bar”, and “bands”. Got there, stood in a line, shouldered through a homogenous crowd of reality-biters just old enough to have bought No Depression and May I Sing with Me at the time of their release. Opening band started. Had a cigarette in the back; walked to the bar. Had another cigarette.

Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops, Carter Family-style country/gospel revivalists, went over real well; after one or two songs the gimmickry and the cuteness was cloying. Their bio calls their original material “almost indistinguishable from traditional tunes,” but I wondered if maybe they were trying too hard, culling too many stock phrases (“little birdie”, “mama”, “the Lord”, “church”) from the trad-country style manual. Well-played, well-sung, but not entirely believable—you know these kids fiiiiiiinally put down their Wilco CDs long enough to listen to the O Brother soundtrack.

I drifted toward the front; had another drink. Stood by the bar. Giant Sand came on, obviously the headliners. There’s such a difference in character between an eager, anxious-to-impress opening act and a more seasoned, devil-stopped-caring big name. The sea-change was evident as soon as Howe Gelb took the mic. He, as headliner, has a certain poise suggesting that even if you’re not witnessing genius in action, you can at least see that an elemental layer of bullshit has been stripped away; now we’re getting down to business.

Gelb’s business was to promote Cover Magazine, Giant Sand’s new “covers record” (in 2002, such albums are to rock musicians what Hamlet is to film directors—so overdone it’s past the point of cliché, safely ensconced in the grab bag of acceptable career turns). This excited me, looking at the CD’s track listing. X’s “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene”? I’ll take it. Oh, covers of PJ Harvey, Johnny Cash, and Black Sabbath too? Sure! No, the concert wasn’t cover-heavy at all. And that was good; it followed its own heartbeat from the clang and grind of the city on a slow, observatory walk through the starlit creases of the American map, accompanied by “Wayfaring Stranger” partway, “Fly Me to the Moon” further out still.

As with any such venture, there were uncomfortable lulls, relentlessly boring stretches, but then there are those inevitable couple of minutes when you trip over something so beautiful you’ve gotta nudge the person next to you and say “Hey! Looka that!”

And those minutes made the Giant Sand show for me. Specifics are lost in the ephemeral haze of a drunken hour, but there was probably one with a chin-stroking Gelb rhapsodizing lovelorn about New York, one with Gelb making cruel mockery of an audience member for (here we go again) requesting “Freebird”, one with a quite-fetching female guitarist cooing a sublime harmony at exactly the right time, one where Gelb fiddled with a CD player he had hooked up to the PA, playing house beats, snippets of Johnny Cash singing in German (prompting the bimbo bartender behind me to exclaim “I didn’t know Johnny Cash was German!” (Oh, Jesus. Then again, Cash wears black and sings in a monotone. Now’s the time on Sprockets venn vee dance.)

I don’t stand in awe of Giant Sand, but I like ‘em as well as anyone I don’t love. It’s hard to give a firm thumb up or down on anything that becomes part of my memory of a time and place, that reflects or invokes my mood. Here I am, New York in spring, in love with rock ‘n’ roll. Giant Sand’s exotic, dirgey, desert folk works as metaphor, incidental music for the stillness and heat of lower Broadway in the wee hours of an April morning. You don’t forget these things.

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