A native of Pennsylvania, Gelb started out in a "fast and furious" punk band that played covers of songs by the likes of the Ramones and the Dead Boys. But the band never went anywhere, and Gelb eventually moved out west, where he had worked summers as a teenager. When he relocated to Tucson, Arizona, in 1979, he started the Giant Sandworms with dobro and slide guitar player Ptacek. The group, which soon morphed into Giant Sand, mutated numerous times and recorded for a variety of mostly independent labels, never selling more than a few thousand copies of any one album. But unlike other aging indie rockers who bemoan the industry's state, Gelb hasn't grown bitter by his lack of commercial success. A free spirit who now releases a large portion of his music on his own Ow Om label, he's learned to make the best of a situation, no matter how significant or trivial it might be.
This particular morning, he's drinking coffee in Seattle. "I don't like Starbucks, but I thought I would partake in said merriment," he says via phone from a tour stop. "It tastes good up here. We got one in Tucson that doesn't taste this good. I don't know what's up with that. It's like anywhere else, I guess. They never export the good wine. They keep the good stuff for themselves."
Back when Gelb started the Giant Sandworms, "alternative rock" didn't exist in name. If anything, Gelb and Ptacek were playing what could be considered a form of garage rock. But after their first EP, Ptacek left the group for a while, because he said it started to "sound like mashed potatoes."
"I didn't know if that was bad or good," Gelb admits. "I love mashed potatoes."
Yet Ptacek and Gelb remained friends and went on to collaborate in Giant Sand. A little too rough around the edges to be country and a little too twangy to be rock, Giant Sand was a precursor to alternative country or Americana. Not that Gelb gives a damn about any of that.
"These names are kind of like vampire shit," he says. "You're around so long, they call the same thing different names. When I wrote that song 'Elevator Music' for [the album] Purge and Slouch, I tried to list all the names for different kinds of music at that point, and that was even before alternative country and Americana. The very first one, I believe, was called 'progressive.' That was the term given to the shit that you wouldn't hear on the radio."
Throughout the '80s and '90s, Gelb didn't just helm Giant Sand. He also played with Ptacek in the Band of Blacky Ranchette and with Lisa Germano and Calexico's rhythm section (drummer John Convertino and bassist Joey Burns) in OP8. He released his first solo album, Dreaded Brown Recluse, in 1991. This began a period of continuous "starting over," Gelb says. It wasn't until Ptacek started having seizures because of a brain tumor that Gelb began to put his experiences together. He decided to help Ptacek, whose soulful folk and acoustic blues made him something of an institution in Tucson.
"The entire town began doing things on such a righteous and high level of help for Rainer and his family," Gelb says. "Wake-up call isn't the right word, but it was definitely some type of light or bell [that] went off in everybody's head. So everybody started becoming these beautiful human beings, kinda like you should act like at Christmas. There was so much going on throughout the whole town, it was astonishing. Aside from obviously being in the thick of it there, I tried to determine what I could do that would be of the utmost payoff."
Inspired by the 1994 Victoria Williams tribute album Sweet Relief, which benefited musicians with no health insurance, Gelb decided he would put together a Ptacek tribute album. Williams, a friend of Ptacek's, immediately came on board. Gelb started faxing musicians such as Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant (a Ptacek fan) and John Parish (who wrote Gelb to tell him he admired his music). Plant encouraged Atlantic Records to get behind it. The resulting album, 1997's The Inner Flame, features covers of Ptacek songs by Emmylou Harris, Vic Chesnutt, and Evan Dando.
Since then, Gelb has been recording with newfound energy. This year alone, he has three albums in the works. One, Confluence, is a solo record on Thrill Jockey Records, the label that released last year's Chore of Enchantment, which he wrote in the wake of Ptacek's death in 1997. Another, Lull Some Piano, is due out in the fall. The third, a Giant Sand record, is also slated for fall. Gelb recorded parts of Confluence while on the road, which is indicative of his new approach to recording.
"One of the ways I've gone about it these days is collecting these souvenirs that are recordings, from wherever they are," says Gelb, who recently toured Europe with PJ Harvey. "Out on tour, you get bored thinking you're on holiday. After day one, you're champing at the bit for something to do. If there's a place to record, you can start on something."
While he was once a wanderer who lived for short periods in Southern California and New York, Gelb says he's been content to live in Tucson for the past decade. It's a good place to raise his daughters; the oldest just turned 14.
"I like staying home these days, especially with the kids," he admits. "I don't want to go out, but I still like it when I do."
And when a reporter tells Gelb that he'll play as part of a monthly series called "Sad Bastard Night" in Cleveland, he couldn't be happier.