Giant Sand songwriter Howe Gelb lines up for Celtic Connections date
As the 18th Celtic Connections festival kicks off, Stewart Smith chats to Giant Sand singer/songwriter Howe Gelb about the global language of music
Mapping alternative routes between seemingly disparate worlds of music is a longstanding aim of Celtic Connections. It’s a vision shared by Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb, who for some 25 years has been a pathfinder and visionary, resulting in one of the most idiosyncratic catalogues in American music. It’s a journey that has seen him travel between Tuscon, Arizona and his second home in Denmark, picking up numerous fellow travellers on the way, from indie and alt. country luminaries, to Canadian gospel choirs and Spanish flamenco musicians.
‘Perhaps people’s allegiances in this world aren’t so geographical, nationalistically speaking, but their nations are more sonic,’ he muses in his laconic southwestern drawl, ‘The same music is being heard and cherished in Japan, as well as in Denmark, as well as in South Africa. This is goin’ on out there, you guys are all united and you don’t know it’.
Like his hero Neil Young, Gelb’s music can be electric and acoustic, noisy and chaotic, lovelorn and charmingly odd, sometimes within the space of a single song.
Live, and on record, Gelb embraces happenstance. ‘No matter what you plan you don’t know what crop you’re gonna yield. You don’t know the extreme weather conditions that might occur, or what the market’s gonna allow. Nature provides one way or other. It knows better how to balance things, even though they might seem extreme at the time. So that’s always been the message. That’s why it’s lasted so long, and also why it’s never become wildly marketable or anticipated’.
He’s wrong about the latter: a new Giant Sand or Gelb solo album may not set the charts alight, but it is always cherished by fans craving that rough-hewn magic. The latest grain of Sand, last October’s Blurry Blue Mountain (Fire), evokes a place between the worlds of sleep and waking. ‘It sounds to me like a town that nobody stops in, but it’s there and it’s lovely, and it’s got a landscape all its own,’ he explains.
Another Celtic Connections artist exploring a landscape of his own is Sushil K Dade, Indo-Caledonian co-curator of ‘A Night of Celtronika’, a pioneering line-up of Celtic and electronica collaborations. In addition to a collbaration between Dade’s own Future Pilot Pop Art Orkestra and DJ Dolphin Boy, the evening features a new commission by Craig Armstrong and the Blue Nile’s PJ Moore, fusion trio Future Trad Collective, Edinburgh’s Hidden Orchestra, Martin Swan’s Mouth Music, Catriona McKay and Alistair MacDonald’s harp/live electronics duo Strange Rainbow, new sounds from Lau accordionist Martin Green, and Skye electronica fusion outfit Niteworks. New Chemikal Underground signings FOUND will be appearing with their ‘Autonomous Emotional Robot Band’ Cybraphon, a steampunk cabinet of mechanical musical intrigue. And to top it all off, Glasgow indie legends The Pastels will be manning the decks.
This spirit of internationalism extends to the billing of Scottish troubadour Alasdair Roberts alongside Cameroonian singer-songwriter Muntu Valdo. Roberts weaves plaintive melody, archaic lyricism and the uncanny into an inspired take on the visionary music of the British Isles. Valdo, meanwhile, reunites the African roots of blues, soul, funk and Latin music in a beautiful fusion of song, loops and live sampling.
It seems fitting to leave the last words to Gelb: ‘The borders are all somebody else’s idea. It’s all planet earth to me.’
See www.celticconnections.com for info.
Giant Sand, O2 ABC, Glasgow, Sat 15 Jan
Alasdair Roberts and Muntu Valdo, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Weds 19 Jan
A Night of Celtronika, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, Fri 28 Jan.