"You're way too real/for wide appeal."
That quote from the late Rainer Ptacek's song "Square," as performed by Howe Gelb in one of his many guises (this time as The Band of Blacky Ranchette), pretty much sums up the whole Howe Gelb/Giant Sand experience. Drunken Bees, a half-hour video documentary filmed in 1994, gives a brief and at times chaotic glimpse of the band's approach to making music.
Giant Sand is the Tucson, Arizona-based band headed by Gelb, an alt-rock, twisted Americana visionary. French indie film-maker Marianne Dissard, an early fan, decided she wanted to capture Giant Sand on film and wormed her way into the life of the band. The result is this disjointed document on film, originally released on VHS and now available for the first time on DVD.
It features Gelb and his bandmates at the time -- John Convertino on drums and vibes, Joey Burns on acoustic bass and guitar, Ptacek on guitars, Bill Elm on lap steel, and occasionally Paula Jean Brown on electric bass -- as they rehearse in living rooms and studios and do a lot of hanging out.
Gelb thrives on a sort of controlled chaos, incorporating an improvisatory jazz sensibility into his loose desert rock, part Neil Young, part Captain Beefheart, and wholly original. Both Brown and another frequent collaborator, singer Victoria Williams, say that Gelb likes "not knowing what's going to happen next," and as Williams observes, "That's sort-of the condition of life, isn't it?"
But Gelb also has a measure of control, as we see in several snippets of rehearsals, including one in which he and Elm carefully work out the call-and-response parts for their guitar and pedal steel.
The film veers from setting to setting with seeming randomness, much like Giant Sand's music. When we meet Gelb in the first scene, he's demonstrating a makeshift "swamp cooler" built into his ancient Plymouth Barracuda. Other scenes include pans across a small crowd listening to a rehearsal in a residential Tucson neighborhood; Gelb talking about The Little Prince with a camouflage-clad airman on the local Air Force base; short bursts of rehearsals and performances, including one in which Gelb's toddler daughter draws pictures in the midst of the performers on stage, seemingly oblivious to the raucous music; a dramatic night-time lightning storm; and a non-sequitur laden conversation with a drunken out-of-towner, wandering the residential neighborhood looking for "some action with the ladies."
The film's title comes from a review in Rolling Stone magazine, which we see Burns reading to his band-mates at one rehearsal session."Things buzz and bump and crash as randomly as drunken bees," the reviewer writes. They liked the phrase well enough to blurb it on their next release.
Drunken Bees is an entertaining diversion that fans are sure to enjoy.
Better yet is one of the extras, the 28-minute "Giant Prequel," so named because it was in effect Dissard's audition shoot for the band. It's a film of the band's performance at the public radio station KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., on the popular "Morning Becomes Eclectic" program. It takes a while to figure out what's going on, because the camera lingers on odd artifacts in the studio, inter-cut with shots of a silent TV screen showing the Home Shopping Channel, with static, background talk and the band setting up providing the soundtrack. But once the performance starts up, it's quite interesting and entertaining, particularly as Gelb switches, sometimes from measure to measure, among guitar, piano, vocals and a portable cassette player that he holds up to the microphone to play pre-recorded sounds.
Another extra is a short video for the song "Searchlight," filmed on the Nevada desert in 1989 when the band for a time comprised only Gelb and Convertino. His wildly painted Barracude also features prominently.
You can learn much more about the video and order it at its own special Web site.