Sunday, October 12, 2008

Enormous Gravel at the Doug Fir

So I headed out last night to catch Giant Sand at Portland's favorite space age log cabin of rock, the Doug Fir. Jenni was down from Olympia for the weekend, so we met up with a couple of "the Johns", in this case Jon the architect and John the Irishman. Here we see the architect and Jenni:

They sorta look like they should be on that "Stuff White People Like" website, don't they? The first band to go on was Tracker:

Tracker is the recording and performing project of local producer John Askew. They had a good sound, a little rootsy, a little twangy, with just enough punch to keep things interesting. And although we couldn't be 100% sure, the Irishman and I were convinced that they had Amanda and Paul from Point Juncture, WA ("it's a band, not a town") sitting in with them. If that wasn't who they were, they sure looked like 'em. And really, how many people in Portland play the vibraphone? Next up was Calgary, Alberta's Chad VanGaalen:

VanGaalen's recorded output is best characterized by dense and unconventional instrumentation (an inveterate basement tinkerer, VanGaalen is, like Askew, a record producer), as well as a quirky style of singing which brings to mind a yodeling contest between James Mercer and Ben Bridwell, officiated by Jeff Mangum (stop me before I name-check again!). He came to Portland with just a drummer, however, and the two of them made their way through a set of enjoyable, if spare, numbers.

Last up were the evening's headliners, Giant Sand. These guys have been around since 1985. They've put out sixteen records. And somehow they've managed to stay more or less off my radar for most of that time. I'd heard jagged shards of them here and there, but like most people, I'm more familiar with Calexico, an offshoot formed by a previous GS rhythm section. Based in Tucson and anchored by singer/guitarist Howe Gelb, Giant Sand has had a fluid membership over the years, and guest musicians on GS projects read like a who's who of Americana's eccentric garde: M. Ward, Victoria Williams, Vic Chesnutt and most of the members Poi Dog Pondering have all lent their talents to the band at various points in its history. Last night's performance was delivered by the current line-up of Gelb, slide guitarist Anders Pedersen, bassist Th√łger Lund (I guess there are more Scandinavians in Tucson than one might imagine) and drummer Peter Dombernowsky. Here's a shot of Gelb in action:

Gelb keeps chickens in his backyard, by the way, so he's not wearing that feed cap purely out of irony... I was really impressed with their set, as were Jenni and the architect. Giant Sand's sound is all swirling dust and hot wind and prickly pear, uniquely evocative of their Southern Arizona surroundings. Appropriately for a man who's spent a good deal of his adult life with too much sun and too little water, Gelb's vocals provide a dry, spiny delivery for his elliptical peyote-esque lyrics, not unlike Chester the Cheetah channeling Lou Reed channeling the beat poets of 1950s North Beach, with a little Leonard Cohen thrown in for good measure (the Lou Reed comparison is not lost on Gelb, incidentally, as the band encored with "Satellite of Love"). Both he and Pedersen make heavy yet judicious use of signal processing, building then tumbling juxtapositions of sound which turn any given song from one mood to the next on the proverbial dime, all the while backed up by a rhythm section at once firmly grounded and subtly improvisational. As a songwriter, Gelb comes out of a place just a few blocks down the way from Townes Van Zandt or James McMurtry. A place a bit more mercurial and abstruse, but within the same zip code.

The Irishman took a little while to warm up to Giant Sand. I think he was a little put off by Gelb and Pedersen's reliance on their effects pedals, while I thought they were used to good... well... effect. But he eventually got behind 'em, if reluctantly. At any rate, if you get the chance to see these guys, consider them highly recommended.

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