The Dune Chronicles

Like many of the country's frayed roots troubadours, Howe Gelb is a walking reconciliation project between the loner tendencies at the heart of his music and the community spirit it seemingly inspires. He's like the weird uncle your parents told you to stay away from at family gatherings—he had a wicked gleam in his eye, but was always ready to spin some myth you'd relay to friends directly afterward. The weird uncle inevitably had a handful of like-minded friends also too smart for their own good, and more than willing to add to the enlightened degeneracy unfolding around them.

At Joe's Pub last Friday, Uncle Howe's Giant Sand, a Tucson-based musical confederation he forms with bassist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino, hosted a hootenanny; they were joined by a storytelling brood from the dark end of songwriter street. Long dormant Evan Dando covered Victoria Williams, Johnny Thunders, and Lemonheads among his own new songs, and made an eloquent case that he really might be the indie Gram Parsons of his own imagination. Vic Chesnutt and Lambchop's Kurt Wagner wrapped their tenors around navel-gazing questions of sexual relations at once creepy and funny. And Will Oldham briefly joined that pair for a take on Willie and dearly departed Waylon's "Good-Hearted Woman, Good-Timing Man," the sort of morally doomed honky-tonk blues once regarded as male-bonding material.

The dark end of songwriter street: Gelb (left) with trumpeter Noah Thomas
photo: David Atlas
The dark end of songwriter street: Gelb (left) with trumpeter Noah Thomas

Gelb meanwhile kept a warm, hostly demeanor. When the expanded, seven-strong Sand was not bashing out Kris Kristofferson and X songs, he'd be randomly picking at the strings of the baby grand or screwing around with a CD player and a sampler. (Among the sources for his improvised musique concrète vignettes was a '50s radio ad for a Hank Sr.-authored guide to writing commercial country tunes.) These were pure mix-tape maneuvers, Uncle Howe fashioning his own collage of the American song- and sound-book. Such tinkering spotlighted a rare understanding of the culture's great dilemma: how to strike a balance between modernist innovation and folk soul. A decade ago Gelb's muse took a left turn at Albuquerque, wound up in Arizona, and found that it was only a state of mind. Now alongside a brotherhood of cultural mechanics, Gelb's trying to see how Johnny Cash and John Cage might fit together. Everyone should have such an uncle. —Piotr Orlov

Deconstructing Harry

If house music is a feeling, then Harry "Choo Choo" Romero gave the few lonely hearts at Centro-Fly on Valentine's night an emotional rescue. But first he had to break down all defenses: The speakers struck beat-and-bass blows at the audience before slipping them into funky unconsciousness. It was dirty punk-rock dance music made for New York.

The party celebrated the release of Choo Choo's dark, drug-addled, head-banging Subliminal Sessions 2 mix—the candy dreams of "Tangerine," the anarchic "Ghetto Tears," and the hardcore techno of Umek. Then there were the classics to remedy all the head-fucking: Grace Jones's "Love on Top of Love," Raze's "Break for Love," and Aly-us's "Follow Me." Black men pressed each other tightly; a sole Japanese hipster stood in awe. This white girl's legs turned to jelly.

Romero may not be a DJ name, but his songs are another matter. 2001 was the year of Choo Choo, House Producer from New Jersey (the state that grooms dance gods). His simple, melodic "Tania" was a runaway underground New York dance hit that graced many a turntable, including superstar DJ Danny Tenaglia's; his "Night at the Black" was all over Ibiza this summer, its sultry, Santana-esque sounds tailor-fit for coke-thin Euro divas. The new mix CD, which features sparkling releases from the Subliminal label, as well as Romero's own Bambossa Records, holds the promise of more fabulousness to come. And more Romero on the decks, too.

Choo Choo's set would have torn the roof off a sweaty pit like Vinyl, where the dancers, not the drinkers, rule. Which was good for the Zoolander look-alikes who stuck around Centro-Fly's main floor past 2 a.m., but bad for the hangers-on swarming Subliminal honcho and man-about-town Erick Morillo (whose promised DJ set never materialized) in the adjacent Tapioca Room. They got treated to "DJ to the Stars" Mark Ronson, whose ADD-like mixing of hip-hop classics and the odd '80s rock hit was just as vapid and predictable as the moniker presupposed. Romero's gritty crunch, however, cut through such celebrity-fucking bullshit. —Carla Spartos

Gong With the Wind

Before guys from Spain wandered over during the 16th century spoiling for empire, gong music used to pervade the Philippines. Today, the form is practiced mainly in Muslim Mindanao. Given the age-old tensions with Christian Manila, the kulintang (a row of about eight plate-sized gongs) symbolizes a way of life that has resisted, at least in spirit if not in fact, the West's incursions—most specifically pop. Part of a Southeast Asian gong tradition (whose best known form is gamelan, or Indonesian court music), kulintang at its most seductive builds layers of sound simultaneously, suggesting some affinity with Sufi music, and inducing in its listeners two contradictory feelings: an urge to move and the desire to be still, entranced.

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