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Howe Gelb telepathically delivers his own brand 

I am on a landline talking to Tucson-based Howe Gelb, the maverick shaman behind the three-decades-old Giant Sand cottage industry, which includes: Two dozen Sand platters, 14 solo releases, his Band of Blacky Ranchette country outfit (four records), his 'Sno Angel gospel choir project (two records, one DVD), the Arizona Amp and Alternator collective (one LP), the one-off OP8 and his Ow Om record label.

We are yakking about Gypsy flamenco guitarists (his next project), the contented Danes (Gelb spends the summers in Denmark with his children and Danish wife), spaghetti Westerns, stride piano and other fruitful Gelbian arcana when his cell phone rings. The unmistakable bebop riff from Thelonius Monk's "Straight, No Chaser" drifts over the line. Gelb excuses himself and answers, sends his love to someone and quickly returns to transition to a new topic -- whether or not there exist Giant Sand ringtones (he thinks so, but hasn't been bothered to check).

Conversation with the voluble 54-year-old musician, who makes his first Charlotte appearance on May 20 at The Evening Muse, is actually a lot like great jazz. It's full of enthusiastic riffs, dynamic digressions and improvised verbiage, all of which make Gelb a commanding raconteur and solid gold as an interview.

But it goes beyond great oratory improv. Gelb would blanche at the comparison, but the man dubbed the "grandfather of alt-country" by the Euro press has, like Monk did to jazz, deconstructed country rock's idioms since starting Giant Sand (nee Giant Sandworms) in the early '80s. Naturally, Gelb downplays his musical endeavors, often referring to them as "muck," in verb or noun form.

"You can make your muck with marble or mud," he says. "I live in an adobe house and I think it's much more beautiful than a marble house, but it's still mud. It's that kind of aesthetic value."

As a songwriter, Gelb Is All Over the Map, reckoned neatly by the title of Giant Sand's 2004 release. Giant Sand may bear familiar country rock building blocks -- a lonesome pedal steel part here, a Johnny Cash train shuffle-beat there -- for foundation, but Gelb doesn't like things too tidy, so his compositions typically veer left where the songwriter-herd goes right. His process embraces whim, mood-weather, adventure and gut intuition. His lyrics bear the Beat writers' stream-of-consciousness stamp, where sound and texture trump function. There's a playful, child-like quality to Gelb's couplets, too -- if that child had an iconoclast's cockeyed and world-wise vantage.

Yet it all has innate logic that makes surprising sense far more often than not. Gelb trusts his instincts, and they've taken to rewarding him. Giant Sand's Chore of Enchantment (2000) remains a twisted-twang benchmark; last year's proVisions won praise as the band's best since then. His 2005 'Sno Angel Like You record, made in Canada with a gospel choir, was a "shouldn't work but does" secular/spiritual blend of blues, country rock and gospel that was hailed by critics from the staid world of Mojo to the hipster hoi polloi at Pitchfork.com.

His upcoming release with the flamenco guitarists, Alegrias (available at the end of May on the Spanish label Eureka through PIAS distributors at http://company.pias.com/en), was recorded during three years of visits to the Andalusian city of Córdoba, and often improvised in a similarly intuitive, what-the-fuck-let's-try-it culture mash.

"We don't rely on actual words," Gelb chuckles at his interactions with the flamenco players, who include Raimundo Amador, a national folk hero in Spain. "We have discussions, but it mostly has to do with melody, and emotion inside that melody -- the texture of the growl, and the yippity of laughter."

Like he did with the gospel choir, Gelb gladly "got out of the way" and let the experts do some of the driving -- this time out of guitar-playing respect for the flamenco aces, but also because it just feels good. (He says he plays a lot of Fats Waller stride piano on Alegrias because his guests seemed the most impressed by it.) It's a trend that began in the mid-'90s, when Gelb grew weary of "lugging around" whatever entity he was in. Now, he'd just as soon enjoy the view from the sideman's sidelines.

"I want to be part of the fabric," he says, likening this less-formal leader role to Duke Ellington's onstage presence, a pianist who plays "a few chords in the song and then enjoys the sonic swarm that's occurring."

It follows that improvisation plays its part in his live shows. When Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino were Gelb's Giant Sand sidemen (from 1991 to 2002), the former credited the experience with teaching him to "tightrope walk" on stage. For Gelb, the tightrope is all he's known -- take his set lists, for instance.

"When I'm with a regular touring band, I never have a set list because I know there's a trick to developing telepathy," he says. "It's not that hard, it's just a thing that players figure out and I think it's more fun that way, it's more jazz even when you're not playing jazz."

That aesthetic also informs his solo shows, where Gelb laughs that the set list is "translucent." With more than five decades in the bank, he sees his tours as an "ambassadorship," a "discussion with a collection of tunes attached."

"When you're over 50, you're in a different mindset with it all," he says. "You can form conclusions, whereas before you don't really know the answers to things and you don't really care so much, either. You're just throwing it out there to see what happens and you're going by your gut all the time. Now, you can decide what your gut was correct with and what it was a little bit incorrect with, and you can make all kinds of conclusions about things, life, people and all that."

Gelb says the audience plays a key role in that discussion, since it has an "energy all its own" that feeds the performance. "You absorb your immediate surroundings and they mix with your luggage, the things you carry with you -- meaning your songs, your ideas, the thoughts in your mind for the day. And then whatever happens there, happens there."

So, while the formula-addicted music industry does the warp-speed collapse, it's comforting to realize that Gelb's had it right all along -- whatever serendipity and a fecund, desert-baked imagination decides that is.

Howe Gelb plays The Evening Muse Thursday, May 20 at 9 p.m. with Sea of Cortez in support. Tickets are $15.

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