When Howe Gelb sings “Careless with abandon and reckless with random”–from “Bender,” a tune off last year’s sprawling, aptly titled Purge & Slouch (Restless)–he’s actually describing his muse: Giant Sand is his vehicle and he drives it wildly, using a revolving cast of players and constantly shifting musical direction. On their latest effort, Glum (Imago)–in some ways an accurate summation of Giant Sand’s many and varied concerns–Gelb paints a tumbleweed-strewn landscape of the American west that incorporates sly Dylan-esque wordplay and vocal delivery, Neil Young’s guitar raggedness, the swagger of the Rolling Stones, the forlorn ache of Hank Williams. Such are some of the raw materials Giant Sand have at their disposal, but what makes them more than a well-intentioned roots amalgam is their leader’s unpredictability, a potent blend of blind ambition and chance. In an interview a few years back this is how Gelb described his guitar playing: “There’s a little gremlin in my finger, and sometimes it just wants to see what would happen if you do the same thing, but do it 13 frets up.” At Giant Sand gigs one gets the feeling that they’re as surprised by what happens as the audience. Fortunately Gelb’s incessant restlessness is countered by the remarkably intuitive and resilient musicians that he plays with, drummer John Convertino and alternating bassists Paula Brown and Joey Burns. Rather than sounding self-indulgent, Giant Sand come off as edgy and exciting. They haven’t played in Chicago since the late 80s, and they’re not to be missed. Grant Lee Buffalo, who’ve just released their second fine album, Mighty Joe Moon (Slash), headline. Tuesday, 7 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark; 549-0203.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robyn Stoutenberg.