Grant-Lee Phillips & Howe Gelb

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“History and legend have often found their way into my songs” reflects Grant-Lee Phillips. “But sometimes, I don’t have to look quite so far to find inspiration.” Walking in the Green Corn, is the newest album by Grant-Lee Phillips. It’s ten songs are drawn from Phillips’ intensive investigations into his native lineage. Phillips, who is Muskogee (Creek), elliptically explores the intersection of past and present, personal and political. While the songs delve deeply into the subconscious mystery of his own back-story, they simultaneously reveal the resonance and insight of ancient myth in parallel to contemporary man’s emotions, actions, and errorsComposed in a concentrated burst over the course of a few winter months, Walking in the Green Corn came about almost too quickly to censor—the unfiltered sum of years of rumination and discovery. As the days became shorter, the nocturnal Phillips became more productive. “I’m pretty good in the morning,” he says, a smile emerging, “which for me is about 2pm. I find that in a half-awake state, I can make a little bit of headway. Then I become more conscious as the day goes on…I have to wait until the evening and the rest of the world has quieted down to resume.”What initially began as off-the-cuff home recordings, designed to capture the songs at the moment of conception, soon took on a life of its own. “Initially I figured that, somewhere down the road, I’d get some musicians together in a cathedral-like space and re-record these songs,” Phillips explains. But the disarmingly warm, bioluminescent quality of his simple home recordings had the certain weathered elegance that, in Phillips’ words, “would have driven me mad if I attempted to recreate them in a professional studio environment.” With the exception of violin and vocals by Sara Watkins (formerly of Nickel Creek) and an understated vibraphone part by Alexander Burke, everything on Walking in the Green Corn was performed, sung, and engineered by Phillips. “I do my best work when nobody’s paying attention – including myself,” he recalls. “That’s what happened: it really snuck up on me. By the end of the year, I had most of the album written and recorded. Little by little I’d play the songs back for my wife, Denise (Siegel), on long drives up the San Joaquin Valley. She’s an artist and writer with uncanny ears and instincts. She kept me aimed in the right direction, brought a lot of objectivity to the project. Denise was my co-producer here.” The mix of euphoria, wonder, and caution brought about by fatherhood—a heady emotional cocktail that fueled Phillips last album, the critically lauded Little Moon—also played a hand in this projects, as his thoughts turned to his own mixed heritage. He has always found his ancestry, which encompasses both Native American peoples European settlers to be a fertile source. “Connecting to my ancestry is like having this deep trunk that’s embedded in the earth, with deep roots. It was always something that was important to my grandmother, who was Creek, and to my mother. So, after becoming a father, I wanted to be able to answer all those questions I know I’ll be asked one day, when my daughter takes an interest in where we come from.” The opening “Vanishing Song” functions equally as an ode to rediscovering the ancient songs of his forefathers and as a longing for a purity and wisdom long corrupted by modern man’s material lust. A similar theme pervades “Fool’s Gold,” of which Phillips says, “Perhaps there is no other kind of gold. Look what it does to us, look how it drives people mad. Look how it drove a whole nation westward and all the suffering that came with it.” Exploring timeless myths and rituals also lead Phillips to discover a certain palpable awe and majesty in life around him that mirrors his ancient inspirations. The loping “Grey Horned Owl” celebrates a beast long associated with insight and wisdom, equating its constancy and calm strength with the unwavering dedication of a devoted partner. “Thunderbird,” perhaps the album’s most stark and intimate performance, finds Phillips overwhelmed by the mighty bird of myth—and equally enchanted with the mysteries and uncertainties of earthly attraction. Since first emerging in the early ‘90s as the front-man and songwriter of the internationally acclaimed trio Grant Lee Buffalo, Phillips has been drawn to the conflicts at the heart of the American experience. The resulting body of work, which consists of four GLB albums and six uniquely divergent solo albums, has placed Phillips among the most revered and admired songwriters of his generation. His post-GLB career in particular has found him exploring a wide range of palettes and textures, from the roiling synthscapes of Mobilize to the rootsy clarity of the pedal steel-laced Virginia Creeper. Walking in the Green Corn shares an elemental purity and richness with Virginia Creeper, but further pairs down both the performances and the compositions. “It comes down to the purest form of expression that I can offer,” Phillips explains. “I have to get off on my own, allow myself to disappear to do my best work.” Walking in the Green Corn comes together as an evocative penetration into our own troubled era. And yet, the album’s optimistic title track completes the album on a meditative, redemptive note—implying that the potential for change and betterment is within reach, and that perhaps the best solutions can be found by looking backwards and forward simultaneously.

Howe Gelb has traveled many a long and dusty mile to get to his place of prominence as an elder statesman of freewheeling Americana and “Erosion Rock”; A brand of music changing with the elements on a daily basis as nature intended, like giant sand, believing that continuous evolution should be a palpable element in music, as when when songs were first handed over again and again, before the frozen capture of a recording studio.
Born in 1956, had moved to Tucson, Arizona, as a teen in the early 1970s after his home was destroyed by flood back in Pennsylvania. When not on the road, he lives with his family in Barrio Santa Rosa. Although “Endlessly restlessly wanderlusted encrusted”, he’s well settled in the desert caliche where it takes him an hour to dig a small hole in the desert floor, there where the sunrise hurts.
He’s collected his players and bands in Denmark and Spain, and one with a full gospel choir attached in Canada, but they call his music Americana anyway. Howe just says he’s “from Earth”.
In 1980, Gelb formed the post punk band Giant Sandworms, with his close friend Rainer Ptacek, the renowned slide guitarist and beloved Tucson icon. Rainer died from brain cancer in 1997, and you can’t talk long with Gelb without his name coming up.
Giant Sand emerged in 1983 and released that group’s debut album, Valley of Rain in 1985. In the 25 years since, he has released an estimated 40 albums or so as Giant Sand, The Band of… Blacky Ranchette, OP8, Howe Gelb solo releases and other collaborations. He’s not sure of the exact amount.
Since his first release was facilitated by handing out a rough mixed cassette to a touring band passing through Tucson in the early 80s, he then continued the tradition by doing the same for Grandaddy and M. Ward when they handed him theirs along the way. And yes, Calexico was his former rhythm section, introducing them boys to each other and Tucson itself in the early 90s.
The new Giant Sand record, Blurry Blue Mountain, was released a year ago on Fire Records, hit the #1 Canadian College Chart position earlier this year for 2 weeks and brilliantly includes all of the mashed-up genres that reflects the band’s credo from the get-go.
Fire is also reissuing 30 albums from Giant Sand’s entire back catalog (complete with remastering of the early titles) and nicely marks the 25th year of Giant Sand releases to date.
The current line up of Giant Sand now numbers 10 or 12 at any given moment, thus becoming the new band:
Giant Giant Sand
… will be exclusively featured at this years Heartland Festival in Vevey, Switzerland Oct. 28, 2011
Gelb’s most recent solo release, Alegrias, by Howe Gelb and A Band of Gypsies, was recorded on a roof top inCordoba, Spain over the last several years. The band is a collection of Andalusian Gypsies, featuring guitarist extraordinaire Raimundo Amador, that is, quite frankly, stunning in its subtle mesh of the 2 worlds colliding.
Gene Armstrong, Tucson journalist and premier music writer of the last 3 decades jots:
“How do you write about a musician who has spent more than 30 years defying musical conventions? You could trot out all the cliched rock-critic terms: seminal, hyperbole, incendiary, eponymous, masterful, achingly poignant, priceless, alt-country, old-school, outlaw. Some of those might even fit if you shoehorned them into context.
Howe Gelb long has been saddled with such titles as “godfather of alt-country” and “elder ambassador of desert rock.” When confronted with such accolades, he clears his throat, amused and a little embarrassed, and he ponders. His summer-sun squint turns into a twinkle when he finally asks his questioner, ‘What do you think of it?’
In three decades he’s managed to combine elements of rock, country, blues, punk, garage, lo-fi, jazz, gospel, avant-garde noise and flamenco gypsy music. Guitar and piano are his weapons of tumult. He sings like a gruff angel, a town crier tapping you on the shoulder, reminding you that the world need not be seen in the conventional ways to which we revert when the world goes blurry. He weaves impressionistic imagery into personal narrative and indulges listeners in expansive observations of the world. In his early years there had been comparisons to artists along the paradoxical lines of Neil Young, David Byrne, Bob Dylan and Captain Beefheart, comparisons that all fit clumsily. Nowadays, other artists get compared to Gelb.”