11 Oct 2001: The Middle East Cambridge, Massachusetts
Pollard & Co. Prove That Showmanship & Indie Rock Can Coexist
In today’s world of indie rock, you could probably say it is rare to find artists who have been influenced by Herman’s Hermits. In fact, one probably needs to look no further than Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard. During their Saturday night show at The Middle East, the former fourth grade schoolteacher turned rock ‘n’ roll frontman quoted the ‘60s Brit-popsters’ hit “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am” during a raved-up version of their new favorite, “Teenage FBI”. Sang Pollard in the midst of the song, “Second verse, same as the first”. Though the joke may have been lost on many of the “kids” (Bob’s expression, not mine) at the sold out show, it didn’t really matter. It was funny to Pollard.
However, what was not lost on the crowd is that the current incarnation of Guided By Voices understands that the sloppy-drunk shows of the past need to remain just that: in the past and as part of their continuously growing legend. Which is not to say that alcohol was not ever present on the stage, be it Pollard’s standard of Budweiser or a bottle of tequila that was being shared by his mates. The band tore through a two hour, 20 minute set with a workmanlike tenacity, tossing off songs that spanned their entire catalog of over 600 songs (at last count) as well as some new yet to be released material. So while the booze remains part of the live GBV experience, the quantities are being kept to manageable amounts.
In addition to Pollard, the current band lineup now includes guitarists Doug Gillard and Nate Farley, Tim Tobias on bass, and drummer Jon McCann. It should be noted that this show was rescheduled from an earlier date back in July, as McCann, in true Spinal Tap fashion, broke his wrist after having a few too may cocktails at a wedding reception.
After an opening set of dreamy psychedelic pop by Detroit’s Slumber Party, Pollard and company stormed the stage with the bold announcement that they would be delivering a great show. They opened the set with the one-two punch of “Things That I Will Keep” and “I Drove a Tank” before delving into some new material from yet another forthcoming release to be called Invisible Train to Earth. (Is there an inside joke here? Pollard literally boasted that this material has actually been getting booed, and at first listen, it did appear to lack a certain tunefulness that one has come to expect from the band.) Material from their current stellar release, Isolation Drills, was very well received, and the highlights included “Fair Touching”, “The Brides Have Hit Glass”, and “The Enemy”, with a guitar riff big enough to command the attention of even the most complacent slackers in attendance. All the while, the flamboyant Pollard showed shades of the former three-sport star that he was in high school, with his leg kicks and microphone twirling skills on prominent display.
Few will dispute Pollard’s talents, but he is often criticized for being overly prolific, as his recorded output is unrivaled by anyone in the industry. True, he has historically shown little restraint in deciding what should and should not be released. However, based on some of his comments between songs, he seems to relish the criticism of his unyielding philosophy, which is even mimicked in his copyright company name, Needmore Songs. Early in the show he quipped, “I’ve been coughing up green snot all day this is a song called ‘Green Snot’”. Later, while introducing a song from Suitcase: Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft, a four-CD set of 100 unreleased songs (each, incidentally, credited to a different fictitious band name such as Magic Toe, Grabbit, and Fake Organisms), he asked, “You all bought Suitcase, right? In a couple more years, look for Suitcase 2: Electric Boogaloo”.
The real gems of the evening, as always, are several of the band’s earlier tracks. Due to the fact that much of their older catalog was recorded in Bob’s basement studio on somewhat primitive recording equipment, the full potential of the songs are often unrealized on their respective albums. The live treatment of such classics as “Game of Pricks”, “Tractor Rape Chain”, “Watch Me Jumpstart”, and “Cut-Out Witch” finds the songs brimming with energy, just as it did on a charged version of “I Am a Scientist”., with which they closed their set.
After disappearing backstage to catch their breath and, one can assume, raise a glass to toast their rousing set, they reappeared for an encore that began with yet another pleaser from the archives, “A Salty Salute”, as if to tip their caps to the crowd. And while it may be a stretch to suggest that Herman’s Hermits were actually a major influence on Pollard, his appreciation of The Who has never been any secret, whether it be his Roger Daltrey-like delivery (I dare you to find someone from Dayton, Ohio who sings with a stronger British accent) or GBV’s crunchy guitar anthems. Much to the delight of the crowd, they closed the show with a scorching cover of “Baba O’Riley”, with the talented Doug Gillard playing the song’s keyboard parts on guitar.
Whether it is a fleeting reference to Herman’s Hermits or a powerful cover of one of classic rock’s most revered songs, it is clear that Pollard is a student of rock, albeit one with his own vision. While rooted in ‘60s pop and ‘70s rock, Guided By Voices delivered their original brand of rock to the “boys and girls” (again, Bob’s words, not mine) of Boston with a timeless conviction.