GIANT³ SAND

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  • Lorna Beth Kelly
  • Brian Lopez
  • Maggie Björklund
Harvest Sun @ St. George’s Hall 3/6/15

St. George’s Hall Concert Room is the height of high Victoriana – crystal, caryatids, gold leaf, filigree on every capital – but that’s not an inappropriate aesthetic for GIANT³ SAND’s (as they are titled tonight) venerable alt. country canon. Backlit in blood red, this could be the fleapit opera in some frontier town of the Old West.

Arizonan Howe Gelb (Giant³ Sand songwriter/singer/guitarist/head honcho) appears. Even in the dark he looks like the cowboy from The Big Lebowski, but apparently goes unrecognised until his face is half-full of microphone – only then do the cheers come, his laconic drawl drowned as it will be repeatedly over the next two-and-a-half hours. He’s stalked onstage early to tell us there isn’t a conventional support act: his bandmates are songwriters in their own right, who’ll each do a turn performing their own material.

First up is Danish pedal steel virtuoso MAGGIE BJÖRKLUND, whose opener isn’t even a song but a fully-fledged composition for her instrument with sensitive, tricky use of a loop pedal. This is fantastic guitar-playing that doesn’t sound like guitar, aping brassy, synthesised, and even vocal tones. Next comes BRIAN LOPEZ (Guitars, Backing Vocals), whose Static is one of the evening’s highlights: a quietly theatrical portrait of a telly addict with a broken TV set – a “Lynchian” (a constantly appropriate adjective tonight) character, as Lopez describes him.

We’re also treated to a few songs by LORNA BETH KELLY (Vocals) and GABRIEL SULLIVAN (Guitar, Backing Vocals) – closer to Giant³ Sand’s bluesier repertoire, which alternate between wordy ballads and brash, quirky stompers from the start. If, mid-tempo, gentler songs such as Home Sweat Home and House In Order are more effective tonight, it could be due to persistent sound problems as much as their stark delicacy. This kind of Americana depends on low, husky singing and most of the raucous hoeing down – the only cliché Giant³ Sand infrequently resort to – leaves the lyrics totally indistinct, and occasional feedback (not the good kind) testifies to an unbalanced guitar sound. A shame, as Gelb’s words are often worth the attention.

With over 25 albums to cherry-pick for a 30th anniversary tour, it’s not unusual – but it is refreshing – to watch a 21-song set and have most of them stay in your head afterwards. New album Heartbreak Pass gets well-played, but the encore surprises with Tumble And Tear, from 1985’s Valley Of Rain. It’s thrashed out with aggression, sounding like Dead Kennedys would if Jello Biafra wore a Stetson.

Creativity like this can’t be penned in by style, and, despite the strong alt. country feel throughout, each song has a lyrical/sonic thumbprint, making them in equal parts outsider music and gothic ballads that hold your attention. With a majority of fans in the diverse audience – assessment based on the consistently enthusiastic applause – this must be cult status. How does Gelb’s songwriting relate to most Americana? To illustrate: imagine that when Dorothy says, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”, the dog instead looks up and croaks, “No, this is definitely Arizona.”

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