Guided By Voices
Photo credit: Scott Miller
Photo credit: Damian Bertoncello
Some live acts essentially transcend criticism. Even more than with most bands, the communal experience — being all together in the presence of this person or band that means so much to you with a crowd of people who all seem to feel the same was as you — is what counts, not the proficiency with which the songs are played or the titles that appear on the set list. Guided By Voices, the legendary indie rock band that has probably rescued millions of impressionable youth from a lifetime of pumping their fists to frat rock, are one of these acts and played a particularly notable show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom on April 24. Given the fervor with which fans worship 47-year-old high-kicking frontman Robert Pollard and his hard-rocking compatriots, it’s hard to even conceive of what would count as a bad Guided By Voices show in the eyes and ears of the faithful. Pollard doesn’t get drunk off his ass? No audience members jump on stage to sing along? President and poseurs aren’t given the verbal smack down? The set list features less than 40 songs? Well, if those are the criteria, this was an excellent show. Pollard took the stage blitzed and steadily worked his way through the couple of cases of beer provided on stage throughout the show. Audience antics were high, with a number of audience members making it up on stage to sing along with their hero, run around like idiots, or attempt to steal the set list long before the show was even halfway completed — often getting thrown out for their efforts. Pollard was in rare form in going off on hilarious between-song tangents, with No Doubt, Henry Rollins, his ex-brother-in-law, W., and Howard Dean’s “I Have a Scream” speech all getting moments under the slurry microscope. And a dizzying number of songs were played — 46, to be exact — ranging from favorites such as “Game of Pricks”, “I Am a Scientist” and “Teenage FBI”, to new numbers slated for the band’s upcoming album to a cover of AC/DC’s “Quicksilver”. So the show more than fulfilled standard expectations. While I’m not one of those faithful, I’d have to say that it wasn’t simply great by those (somewhat mocking) criteria, but on the musical evidence too. And, in a weird twist, by the rarely invoked criteria of rock history import as well. For, in a story that’s been picked up by just about every journalistic outlet for rock music, indie or otherwise, it was on this night that Pollard announced that their upcoming album would be Guided By Voices’ last and the band would dissolve by year’s end. In Pollard’s words, “After 21 years, it’s time to graduate.” Coming about an hour into the marathon three-hour set, at first the announcement, delivered in the form of a alternately heartfelt and self-aggrandizing speech that Pollard claimed to have composed earlier that day, seemed to just be drunken rambling, on par with his earlier comments about Henry Rollins being an asshole and his jokes about needing to have a chair onstage because he’s “getting old.” But it turned out to be serious, and seemed to make the rest of the evening, while still hilarious and entertaining, somewhat bittersweet for many in attendance. How big is this news really? After all, even though a band going by the GBV moniker has been around for 21 years, Pollard is the only original member left, and has been for a long time (in part because he fired everyone else back in 1996 and brought in a new set of musicians). Pollard is really the heart/soul/brains/face and everything else of GBV, and, given his insane prolificacy and ability even now to, in his words, “release a new solo album every month,” it’s fairly certain that Pollard isn’t disappearing from the world of rock entirely. While it’s true that the present incarnation of the band has found great favor with fans and will be sorely missed by many, it seems likely that many of the members will find their way into Pollard’s post-GBV projects, just as Tobin Sprout, Jim Pollard, and other former GBV’ers have over the years. But that’s the cynic in me talking. My indie rock-loving heart agrees with Pollard in some sense — GBV really are, in many ways, with the disbandment of Pavement and so many of the other old-school indie bands, the sole surviving “kings of indie rock” — or at least the 1990s incarnation of it with which I and many others of my age and ilk so closely identify. When they no longer exist, even in a symbolic sense, indie rock will, in some sense, as Pollard declared in his speech, “die. R.I.P.” Luckily for all concerned, Guided By Voices appear to be going out on a high note, with indications that their upcoming album Half Smiles of the Decomposed will be their best work in years. In fact, Pollard pointedly compared it to GBV’s seminal 1994 release: “It’s better than Bee Thousand! You guys like Bee Thousand, don’t you?” If the high energy performances and overall quality of the songs played on this night are carried through to the album, fans should be very pleased. * * * * Before the evening took such an emotional and historic turn, early in the GBV set Pollard made a big claim as he applauded the opening set by his Matador Records labelmates Seachange and vouched for their future success: “I discovered the Strokes, I discovered Seachange.” Are Nottingham, England’s Seachange the next Strokes (whatever that implies)? Probably not. For one thing, they actually put on a compelling live show. For another, their claustrophobic mood pieces and violent stabs of guitars, violin and vocals aren’t instantly digestible three-minute ditties, making their crossover appeal somewhat limited. Most importantly, whereas the Strokes’ ply a particular brand of ’70s New York cool, Seachange are emphatically British. Their non-instrument-playing frontman Dan Estop spits out his carefully enunciated lyrics in the most pronounced regional Brit accent this side of Jarvis Cocker. The members of the band seem teeny-tiny, and have that underfed look which makes you want to take them home and fatten them up with American fast food. And like many British bands, they seem to have huge ambitions. Already they seemed to be chafing against the boundaries of the small stage on which they were performing as near collisions, tangles, and bumps occurred throughout the set as the band put on a show with arena-style energy on a club stage. Estop seemed a bit disappointed with the somewhat ennui-tastic reception from the New York crowd — even taking the time to stare down audience members who weren’t paying attention — but the band were pleased as punch with their opening slot for GBV. “We’re feeling a bit arrogant tonight,” Estop asserted. “Bob likes us.” On a night when Pollard was the biggest hero in the room, that was just about all the endorsement one could possibly need.