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SXSW: Giant Sand doesn’t show
BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL
For the Sun-Times
AUSTIN, Texas — If “phoning it in” is a well-known pejorative for failing to deliver, what do you call it when a show’s headliner only appears briefly via web video?
Skyping it in?
Whatever the term, that’s exactly what Giant Sand singer and songwriter Howe Gelb apparently did at South by Southwest on Saturday night.
The long-running desert-rock outfit was scheduled to headline the “Tucson Music Night” at a bar called the Speakeasy, and the Austin Chronicle newspaper had made the gig one of its critic’s picks in the festival’s final 1 a.m. slot. “Gelb returns this year as Giant Giant Sand, which expands the basic lineup to a mini-orchestra in order to flesh out last year’s acclaimed rock opera Tucson,” the Chronicle wrote.
But in what was puzzling performance art, a meticulously planned joke at the expense of fans, a quasi-no-show that could happen only in the era of instant digital communications or some combination thereof, Gelb appeared only on a computer screen projected on the wall above the stage, his voice piped in through the speakers.
Everything had seemed normal after midnight, with Sergio Mendoza y la Orkestra onstage, booming out a vibrant set for an exuberant, dancing crowd. When they finished, they promised fans, “Next, Howe Gelb!”
But a few minutes after La Orkestra wrapped up, Gelb appeared on the video screen, seated on a bed with a guitar in his lap.
Apparently peering into a web cam, he fiddled with a microphone and a pair of headphones and talked, ostensibly to the club’s sound man. Fans who thought it was just setup paid little attention at first, then began to watch and listen curiously.
Three musicians filtered onto the bar’s stage, two bearing guitars and one perched at a small drum kit. Via blurry video, Gelb began somewhat haltingly to play and sing first one song snippet, then another. The musicians onstage played along, though their microphones weren’t turned on.
Concluding the second snippet of song, Gelb told the players in Austin to “do some more songs,” suggesting names of tunes from Giant Sand’s most recent album, Tucson. Then on screen he put down the guitar, poured a glass of bourbon and walked out of view.
By this time much of the crowd had left. Those that remained still waited, apparently thinking it was all a ruse and Gelb would appear in the flesh at any moment to perform. But the club put dance music on its PA and the guys on stage began to pack up and load out.
No one could seem to decide if they had just been played for fools, witnessed some sort of conceptual art piece or both. Either way, it was a confounding and anti-climactic final hour of SXSW.
There is no mention of the show on Giant Sand’s web page, Twitter or Facebook accounts, and the Facebook event page for the Tucson music showcase contains no new information. Neither the SXSW publicist nor Howe Gelb himself have yet responded to email requests for comment sent late last night. I’ll update this page if I learn more.
Update, 10:40 a.m.: I received the following email from Gelb: “Hi Anders. Good morning from Tucson. It’s a lovely morning. H.”
Update, 10:58 a.m.: I pressed Gelb for more. Here it is, edited slightly for clarity. The first bit refers to a pair of basketball shoes he displayed on the web cam last night.
Here we are with the future at our disposal. Explanation of last night can now be attributed to one of several possibilities:
1. Nike Jordan’s Retro 13 kicks were released on the morning of March 16th. My son turns 14 on march 16th as well, with a shoe size of 13. He and I went after them Jordans for his big day. Not an easy thing. Lines form, tickets are handed out days prior, a lottery is drawn to see who holds the winning to ticket to be allowed to buy them, it’s a wonderfully fun racket. And we did. So my giant giant son wears his giant giant Retro Jordan 13 shoes now, size 13, here in the year 2013.
2. I believe Giant Giant Sand can be Giant Giant Sand without me. I officially declare it. Why not? Being in a band is supposed to be about breaking rules. Writing songs too. Break the f***ing rules. Ask Bob Dylan, he readily admits to this. So Giant Giant sand is a community more than ever. I say go ahead and become it. It is the future, and as CEO of Giant Giant Sand, I so deem it. Especially now when current members are as much as 30 years my junior.
3. The cost of SXSW and getting there is an enormous conflict for the concerned indie rocker. None of it adds up. Having gone there since 1989 I can readily conclude that although the idea of that sonic cluster muck is a grand one, the reality of getting there is a luxury for a man in my position, whatever it is I am. And destiny has so determined otherwise.
Somewhere between my son’s Jordans and the Skype now lies an appropriate solution.
Gelb’s cost/benefit analysis of SXSW echoes an ongoing debate among musicians and the underground industry, and his points about the evolving and communitarian nature of a band are themes he’s sounded in recent years since Giant Sand’s longtime core trio disbanded (Joe Burns and John Convertino chose to devote their full time to Calexico).
And of course, that Howe Gelb has never been conventional or predictable is key to the appeal of his adventurous, evocative music and a hallmark of his enigmatic career. So chalk up another quirky chapter in the continuing tale.
Anders Smith Lindall is a Chicago music critic.