5 November 2009: House of Blue — Cleveland
On the airplane heading back to Chicago from Cleveland, exhausted and worn out, having lost my voice about a day prior, I just wanted to get back to my apartment and rest. I was shoving my backpack into the overhead, when a guy, early 20’s said to me “Were you at the Guster show on Thursday?” I looked down at my yellow Guster T-shirt, back at him and nodded. “It was fucking great, wasn’t it?” he said. And that is one reason it is so great to go to Guster shows. While it may be meticulously planned or beautifully accidental, the band has built up a community amongst their fans that makes people forget their sheer exhaustion and talk to a complete stranger for a one hour and fifteen minute flight.
The Cleveland stop was the sixth show of their ten-stop mini-tour to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the release of Lost and Gone Forever. The album, which was the first major label (Reprise) release for the band, is also the most popular with the fans. For a typical 15-song set, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see at least six to eight of the songs be off of this album. Considering the fact that the band has been together approximately 15 years and is five albums deep, it’s a testament to the lasting impact of the album. The tour, dedicated to being “An Evening with Guster” consists of two sets: one being LAGF in its entirety and the other comprised of favorites and some untried songs off the new album, which has a rumored release of spring 2010.
Cleveland’s House of Blues is a short walk from lake Erie, and the steady wind blows firmly as you walk down E. 4th street’s brick walkway, under the rows of light bulbs strung overhead from restaurant to restaurant. Rather than wait outside the venue in the aforementioned wind and drizzle, my friend and I opted to pay the $15.00 for a gift card, which put us inside the building, in a concrete corridor with about 40 other fans. The average age in the back hall/storage area/over-sized closet was roughly 24. That does not exclude the teenagers in from Pittsburgh, PA, the three 40 year-old brothers from Toledo, OH, or the couple from Michigan sporting homemade T-shirts saying “Michigan Girls Love Guster”. Understand that I only know all of this because the whole “sequestered to the concrete alcove” turned out to be one of the best parts of the night. It was a virtual social hour between strangers.
Walking in to the 1,200 person, two story music venue, it immediately packs in tight. The general admission ticket is a standing room only, first come, first serve policy, so the lower level fills in quickly. Again, while standing, I get to know the people whose shoulders I’m going to be rubbing against all night. My neighbor shows me a ping-pong ball he brought, which he’s artfully drawn on the four band members’ faces. It’s freaky how realistic it looks, despite the Sharpie marker medium. This is his first Guster show, yet he said he’s well aware that these concerts are rife with traditions. The ping-pong balls are used when “Airport Song” is performed, a ditty off their 1997 release Goldfly. The album version of the song ends with the sounds of ping-pong balls bouncing and ever since, it’s been a tradition for fans to shower the stage with a barrage of ping-pong balls.
There’s no opener for this show, due to the dual sets. The band finally takes the stage opening with the lesser-known “G Major” and it’s all engines go. The crowd is already dancing and head bobbing in rhythm by the time lead singer Ryan Miller busts into a very Cars-esque harmonica solo. The up-tempo songs continue, composed primarily of songs off the last two albums Keep It Together and their newest release, Ganging Up on the Sun.
Highlights include the newest rendition of “Red Oyster Cult”, a known staple of their live shows, which gained an unexpected Act II. Just when percussionist Brian Rosenworcel began to bring the song to rest with the final cymbal crashes, “Red Oyster Cult” swiftly turned Blue Oyster Cult, the band giving its rendition of “Don’t Fear the Reaper”. I actually had to wince away from the guy behind me; not knowing a shriek like that could come out of a grown man. It was also a pleasure to hear “Rocketship”, also off of Goldfly. A rarity to be heard live, and though Ryan Miller does a fantastic job with the lead vocals, giving a song to fellow guitarist Adam Gardner, whose voice is deeper and less pitchy in comparison, was refreshing. The first set drew to a close with “Airport Song”, which has been played at shows for 12 years, and again, the band managed to keep fresh. Towards the end of the song, Miller’s voice gets totally distorted and the beat picks up. Think back to a time of cassette tapes, when you would slowly draw the tape from Play to Pause, the voice on the tape becoming lethargic and dragging. His voice also resembles something you may expect to hear at the gates of Hell, if Hell also came with strobe lights and a disco ball. The song has distortion and dancing…it’s Dark Disco.
The band leaves the stage and a projector screen drops down. Cue footage circa 1999. You see Miller, puffy haired and clean-shaven, the antithesis of his current self. Guitarist/vocalist Joe Pisapia doesn’t even make the footage, not having joined the original threesome until closer to 2004. Rosenworcel is shown in the recording booth, playing the bongos, congas, cymbals and bass drums all by hand proving true the liner notes for LAGF’s which informs fans that the drums for all eleven songs off the album were played by hand. While this is huge draw for fans to live shows, Rosenworcel’s hands and wrists have paid the price. Years of their rapid-fire beatings on the hand drums have provided him with tendonitis, not to mention open cuts and sores on his hands and fingers that prior to shows, need to be super-glued shut and bandaged like those of an MMA fighter. Footage also shows LAGF’s rock star producer, Steve Lilywhite, in studios playing with a bass. Lilywhite, who has worked with notable artists like U2, The Talking Heads, Dave Matthews and Phish, gets more than ample praise from the band members for the success of this album.
The band re-enters and starts Lost and Gone Forever in its entirety. It’s a loud album, which makes it fantastic for a live show, and Rosenworcel pummels his drum kit with no mercy. Amplified by an intense light show and on-beat color changes, his hands’ high arcing motions crash down on the cymbals like Zeus striking down from the heavens. The quartet opens with “What You Wish For”, an airy, harmonized tune that leads into the well-known crowd pleaser, “Barrel of a Gun” and finally dips into “Either Way”. The crowd blew bubbles throughout the song which is another familiar tradition. It was a classic moment as the words oscillated from Miller’s mouth, bouncing bubble to bubble from the front of the stage to the back of the venue.
A few songs later, the band went forward with some songs that are usually bypassed during the live show. First came the high-pitched “All the Way Up to Heaven”, a song that had been long ago laid to rest after the band did a live session with Ben Folds, whose piano contributions added to the song so strongly that they didn’t think it could ever be recreated. It was easily the weakest song of the two sets. It seems to be a song that on a good day, it may be possible to hit all the notes, however, it’s registry is so high, that the sharp notes couldn’t go unnoticed and proved to be a difficult range for Gardner and Miller to harmonize. Then came “Two Points for Honesty”, which easily received the loudest round of applause. This song has been an almost annoyingly constant request from fans, however that same affinity is not found from the band. In past interviews, they have stated the reason being that it just didn’t translate live like it had in the studio recording, with the multi-layered guitar introduction being the primary reason. It was obvious they had fixed that problem. The crowd formed one solid voice, roaring, an audible contest with the amps for who could sing it louder. Closing out the CD set was “Rainy Day” which was my favorite performance of the night. The song is rarely played due to tempo, but even having been on the back burner for the better part of ten years, it was epic and haunting. The slow tempo didn’t seem to negatively affect fans who pulled out lighters and swayed in appreciation.
The three-song encore opened with the laid back “Hang On” and dropped jaws with “Come Downstairs and Say Hello”. The album version of this song does no justice to how it transfers onstage. It began with a new sound with Miller now opting for a ukulele over his previous electric guitar and finishing up with Rosenworcel’s 32 consecutive, bare-handed slams of the cymbal (yes, we counted). This song is a great one to start with for any unfamiliar Guster fan. To draw the 26 song show to a close, the four members stepped away from their mic stands, edged to the front of the stage and serenaded the crowd with an unplugged version of “Jesus on the Radio”.
While the Lost and Gone Forever Tour has only two sold out stops left, it was great time to go back, reminisce, and party like it was 1999. It can be expected and hoped that the band will start touring again once the springtime brings the warm weather as well as their new release.