Giant Giant Sand’s Tucson features music for a country rock opera written by Howe Gelb. It’s the story of a young man who leaves his home and sets out on a road trip in the desert, the series of adventures that follow teaching him something about life. It starts with a waltz and ends with a Tom Waits-like blues yarn, and between times is filled with as many musical happenings as those of the story. Gelb’s narrative blurs the line between dreams and reality, so the borders the main character falls foul of may be personal or they may be physical, the saloon bar where he falls in love may or may not be real and the town he comes across seems uncannily similar to one he just left behind… It’s more about how we can view things differently: in other words, a journey of discovery. There’s also a surreal flavour, with messages written in pebbles, rivers that run backwards, dancing saguaro cactii… one suspects something in the cactus juice, and any passing resemblance to the author in the “semi grizzled man with overt boyish naïveté”, is I’m sure purely coincidental…
Howe Gelb often steps outside of musical conventions to follow his heart. The rolling membership of the Giant Sand project is a testament to his free spirit and collaborative ethos, the only two constants in the band being Gelb himself and his adopted home in Tucson, Arizona. Like their distant “cousins” Calexico, Giant Sand draw on an Mexican-American heritage with a Cumbia style of playing that fuses African and South American traditional music, but also embraces Americana, country rock and the blues.
Now, on his latest project, the desert troubadour Gelb has returned with an expanded line-up (and name), including musicians from both his orbits, Tucson, Arizona, and Aarhus in Denmark. Giant Giant Sand’s Tucson is a musical homage to the band’s desert home. Gelb had had the idea for a rock opera much earlier but it all came together over a musical engagement in Berlin last year when commissioned artists jammed on a desert theme, the project snowballing until he realized he had enough material for a double album. Rather like Neil Young’s Greendale, the songs on Tucson are good enough to stand on their own, but the storyline gives the music a cinematic quality which tweaks the interest, and Gelb obliges by providing copious sleeve notes with stage directions.
Tucson is ambitious, with the assembled musicians having to draw on many different styles to provide the necessary musical backdrop to events unfolding in the story. Country-tinged opener ‘Wind Blown Waltz’ is a smart prelude and leads into signature tune ‘Forever And A Day’, full of boyish swagger as the main character departs, singing “Goodbye Suckers, I’ll be on my way” with the townsfolk replying, encouragingly, “Adios loser”. It’s one of Tucson’s more upbeat moments, very much like Calexico or Beirut with the mariachi trumpet and accordion, our hero full of optimism as he rides off into the sunset on a bicycle. The American bluegrass or country music moments on the album range from upbeat guitar-chugging songs like ‘Thing Like That’ (very reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s ‘I Walk The Line’) to slower ballads like ‘Plain Of Existence’. Gelb renders ‘Love Comes Over You’ with an exquisite Hank Williams warble, and romance is heavy in the air on sultry jazz duet with Lonna Kelley ‘Ready Or Not’.
Elsewhere, there are flamenco influences, like on feisty ‘The Song Belongs To You’ and the wonderful Cumbia ‘Caranito’, the musical catalyst for the original project in Berlin. There’s probably a debt owed somewhere along the way to Tom Waits: certainly ‘Slag Heap’ has that feel of the Marc Ribot and Rain Dogs-era Waits, and on final duet with Kelley ‘Not The End Of The World’ with its lovely warm trumpet and piano, he doesn’t sound a million miles from Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’. Gelb’s mission has always been to mix things up and he keeps on the right side of pastiche by being warm and genuine. Credit also due to the Danish string players who sound like they’re playing their hearts out, with special mention to fiddlers Asger Christensen and Iris Jakobsen, and Maggie Bjorkland, who proves once again you can never have too much pedal steel in this kind of stuff.
Giant Giant Sand are road-testing the new material at select festivals in Europe this summer, presumably as a precursor to fleshing the project out into a full-blown opera. Tucson certainly has commercial appeal, some solid songs fusing different musical styles and describing a journey of the heart in a modern-day setting – the crowd scenes and confusion at the end are particularly poignant with last year’s Arab Spring in mind. There’s a part in which the main character is gazing over the bar longingly at a waitress, about to fall in love … but she’s reading Sartre’s The Age Of Reason and behind her there are cactii dancing under mirror balls. The surrealist elements probably ensure Howe Gelb’s opera will never make the West End or Broadway, but show its author following his heart again, searching for some existential truth in the Arizona desert.