Some people say it isn’t cool to wear a T-shirt for a band when you’re at a concert by that band. Showing too much team spirit, perhaps? Well, it might have been a bit nerdy, but I wore a Guided By Voices T-shirt Wednesday night (Oct. 13) when the reunited band played at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre. It was a T-shirt I bought on the night of the final Guided By Voices concert — well, it was supposed to be the final concert, anyway. That was on New Year’s Eve 2004, a long, sprawling affair that saw Robert Pollard bidding a boozy farewell to his longtime bandmates. A very memorable night (which I blogged about here — please pardon a few of the broken links on that page).
The mega-prolific Pollard has continued cranking out solo albums and recordings with an almost bewilderingly long list of bands since then, and I have to admit that I’ve lost track of Pollard’s prodigious output. But when Pollard announced he was getting the boys back together for a short reunion tour, I was eager to relive the GBV experience. And this was the “classic” lineup from the early 1990s period when I first discovered and fell in love with the band, playing just songs from those years.
As the group played Wednesday at the Riv, it reminded me of the first time I saw GBV, in 1995 at Lounge Ax. There was Pollard in the center of stage, jumping around, kicking up his legs and twirling his mike like, well, Roger Daltry. Meanwhile, guitarist Mitch Mitchell and bassist Greg Demos were jumping around a fair amount themselves. In the small confines of the Lounge Ax, I remember feeling the sensation that the band was rushing toward the audience the entire time it was playing. The guys were playing on a bigger stage this time, without that feeling of small-club claustrophobia, and they were clearly older — but the energy and spirit hadn’t changed all that much.
Like many of the GBV concerts in the days of old, this one wasn’t perfect. At some moments, the band sounded sloppy. And there were a few lulls. But when things clicked, it sounded great, quickly pouncing on one great song after another. Pollard named almost every song before the band launched into it — a habit he said he was once berated for, by another musician he didn’t name. The crowd, clearly packed with some fervid GBV followers, responded with enthusiastic hand-waving and singing when the group played its most beloved songs, such as “Echos Myron” and “Game of Pricks.”
It was really nice to see a GBV concert with Tobin Sprout in the lineup, since Sprout used to be the band’s second voice, always singing a few songs on each album. More laid back than his fellow band members, Sprout nevertheless seemed to be enjoying himself, smiling as he played rhythm guitar and occasionally stepping up to the mike for songs such as “14 Cheerleader Cold Front” and “Awful Bliss.”
Filling out the reunited lineup was drummer Kevin Fennell. Pollard joked about how much trouble he had finding some of these guys to reunite the band. Where did he find Sprout? “He was swimming in the Great Lakes,” Pollard claimed. “We got them all back,” he said. “We’re the Blues Brothers.”
While Wednesday’s show wasn’t nearly as much as a marathon as that 2004 farewell show, the band did deliver 39 songs, including three encores. The songs came from some of GBV’s best albums: Propeller, Vampire on Titus, Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and Under the Bushes Under the Stars — plus a sampling from various EPs and lesser-known records. I was especially excited to hear a couple of my favorite songs, both from an EP called The Grand Hour: “Break Even” and “Shocker in Gloomtown.” Both of those tunes have riffs built around distinctive, odd rhythmic gestures, unfolding like epic classic-rock suites even though they’re only a few minutes long. They’re prime examples of what made GBV so great.
SET LIST: Weed King / Exit Flagger / Cut-Out Witch / Gold Star for Robot Boy / Striped White Jets / Shocker in Gloomtown / Tractor Rape Chain / My Son Cool / Bright Paper Werewolves / My Impression Now / A Good Flying Bird / Watch me Jumpstart / Closer You Are / Awful Bliss / 14 Cheerleader Cold Front / Pimple Zoo / Buzzards and Dreadful Crows / My Valuable Hunting Knife / Echos Myron / Break Even / Gleemer (The Deeds of Fertile Jim) / Lethargy / Hot Freaks / Game of Pricks / The Queen of Cans and Jars / Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory / Motor Away / Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy / I Am a Scientist / ENCORE 1: Postal Blowfish / Jar of Cardinals / Matter Eater Lad / Don’t Stop Now / ENCORE 2: Dodging Invisible Rays / Quality of Armor / Smothered in Hugs / ENCORE 3: Johnny Appleseed / Some Drilling Implied / A Salty Salute
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The opening act was another Ohio band, Times New Viking — a good fit with Guided By Voices. The group’s songs aren’t as catchy as Pollard and Sprout’s, but they share some of the same to-the-point scrappiness. Times New Viking crammed a lot of songs into its opening set.
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