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Giant Sand's Howe Gelb is an indie icon

I can't predict the future, of course. But right now, it looks like the Forward Music Festival's debut this weekend will be the most exciting musical event of 2008.

There are a lot of reasons for that. But one of the most important is the depth of the new fest's schedule. Sure, Neko Case, Bob Mould and Killdozer are marquee headliners and deserve all the attention they've been getting in the build-up to the event. But festival-goers can also use their general admission wristbands to catch some stupendous acts who'd normally be topping the bill at venues around the world.

One of most prominent of these "hidden gems" on the schedule is the prolific, at times irascible, and always interesting Howe Gelb, who'll be performing under the Giant Sand moniker here.

The Tuscon-based Gelb's an icon in independent music. His 30-year ramble through Neil Young-style country-rock, self-referential punk, boho blues-rock, cinematic art rock, hermetic folk, piano jazz and ambient sounds that reflect the desiccated landscape of his desert home has been so idiosyncratic that placing him in any particular genre or category is impossible.

I suppose an ominous, guitar-centered tune like the oblique classic "Shiver" makes him a "singer-songwriter." But that's like saying Tom Waits is a blues man. Of course he is. Then again, he's much more than that.

Gelb comes to FMF just as the new Giant Sand album, proVISIONS, is receiving kudos from all quarters. The critical praise makes sense, since the disc skips easily from moody-yet-accessible Americana tracks (see the Neko Case-augmented "Without a Word") to jazzy recitatives to fuzz-tone-soaked psychedelic jams that'd please the heck out of just about any pimply-faced hard rocker. In a way it's a pretty fair sampling of his ever-lengthening career, and in that sense, it's a good entry point for folks who aren't especially familiar with his work.

Of course, you can bet the hardcores who turn out for Giant Sand's too-brief time slot at FMF will want him to toss in a few obscurities from the past, too. And believe me, if he obliges 'em, it'll be no hardship. Because even Gelb's oddest peregrinations are worth hearing.

Giant Sand, Orpheum, Theater, Friday, Sept. 19, 7 pm

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