Photos from the second day of Riot Fest, Sept. 14, 2013, in Humboldt Park, Chicago.
As Robert Pollard asked the crowd jammed into Chicago’s Metro nightclub to help him perform a sketch at the start of Guided By Voices’ final concert, hardcore GBV fans knew exactly what he had in mind. The audience did an encore of its chant from a few minutes earlier — “GBV! GBV!” — and Pollard & Co. (bandmates, plus former bandmates like brother Jim Pollard) recreated the spoken dialogue from the beginning of the “Propeller” album.
“Are you ready to rock?”
“This song does not rock.”
The exchange would be meaningless to 99.9999 percent of the population, but it meant a lot to this crowd. (Just what does “89” mean, anyway?) And with that, GBV launched into its great prog-rock anthem, “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox” … not a song the band has played that much in recent years, and a good sign that GBV planned to dig deep into its back catalogue.
Alongside the bins filled with beer bottles — a requisite component of any GBV show — a couple of white plastic buckets labeled “PUKE” and “PISS” sat on the stage. And GBV even had its own bar on stage, with Pollard pal Trader Vic serving as bartender. Thus… we knew much alcohol would be consumed by the musicians. So what else is new at a GBV show? Pollard’s famous for chugging beers, twirling beer bottles into the air and catching them (well, at least some of the time), and somehow managing to hang onto cigarettes and beer while spinning around his microphone on its cord and doing karate kicks at the same time. He’s apparently given up smoking, but he took it up again for this final show, bumming smokes off audience members and GBVmates.
After a strong start, the concert paused for a New Year’s Eve midnight countdown… balloons falling and mostly exploding upon cigarettes (except for the balloons in the net that got tangled up in a ceiling fan)… and more drinking…
Pollard promised this would be the longest concert of all time, and he almost lived up to his promise. He said the set list had 61 songs — the same as Roger Maris’ old home-run record — but thanks to Barry Bonds, GBV would now have to go for 78 songs. They didn’t make it quite to that mark, but they did play close to four hours (from 11:20 p.m. until 3:20 a.m.), with a grand total of… 63 SONGS!!!
What exactly is the record for single longest performance by one band or artist, either in minutes or songs? Whatever it is, this GBV show was one for the history books. With that many songs, I was hard-pressed to remember some of the more obscure tunes, which Pollard dutifully identified — saying, for example, that the next song was from the 1993 EP Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer. Um, there’s one I haven’t listened to in a while.
I could quibble with the set order and a few of the selections, but GBV played almost every song I wanted to hear, with many great tracks from “Bee Thousand,” “Alien Lanes” and “Propeller,” plus a few of the early, early songs that the band rarely played on tour. Looking at the set list from the previous night’s concert (which I did not attend), my only regrets are not hearing “Gold Star for Robot Boy” and “Liar’s Tale,” as well as that night’s opening act, Tobin Sprout.
A few other songs I wish I could have heard one more time in concert: “Break Even,” “Weed King,” “Striped White Jets,” “Little Lines,” “Jane of the Waking Universe,” “Bulldog Skin,” “The Ironmen Rally Song” and “Captain’s Dead” (actually, I never heard that one in concert). Oh, well… When a band has 900 songs, you’re bound to miss a few of your personal favorites when it gets boiled down to a mere 63 songs.
It was great to see Sprout and several other former GBV members sitting on some songs. I liked GBV best when Sprout was in the band, adding a second distinctive voice to the group’s sound. Ah, it was nice to hear him singing on “14 Cheerleader Coldfront.”
Hearing “Demons Are Real” for the first time in a while as a live song — and hearing it out of its normal context on “Bee Thousand” — I was struck by how gripping and odd it is. The best GBV songs are the ones with unusual rhythmic touches and off-kilter vocal phrasing, the ones that might seem just peculiar the first time you hear them but grow on you with repeated listens. “Cut-Out Witch” did not initially strike me as one of the better songs on “Under the Bushes, Under the Stars,” but when I noticed the song was becoming a regular fixture of GBV concerts, I came to see its genius. Other songs of this ilk include “Shocker in Gloomtown.” Reaction upon hearing it the first time: What the heck was that? Reaction upon hearing it the hundredth time: Best song of all time! (Well, not quite…)
After seeing some great, great GBV concerts, starting at the Lounge Ax in 1994, I’d been disappointed with a few of their shows in the last couple of years. They weren’t necessarily bad, but at times, the band lacked the spark and spontaneity it had once had. This final show, though, was the best I’d seen in years, and surely the most unforgettable.
Pollard was in generous mood, even making forgiving comments about people he has slagged in the past, such as Jim DeRogatis. Most of all, he seemed proud of what he’d accomplished in 21 years with Guided By Voices. Over an instrumental break in “Secret Star,” he recalled his dad telling him, “Do you realize how many shitty bands there are out there? What do you have to offer to rock ‘n’ roll?” And he remembered telling his mom, “I’m a fucking genius.” Her response: “A genius at what?” In those early days of obscurity, Pollard’s motivation was simple, he said: “I just wanna have fun.”
Perhaps my sentimental feelings about the night made me more forgiving than usual toward Nate Farley, whose drunken inability to play much guitar has irritated me at a couple of earlier shows… You had to cut him some slack tonight, as he was clearly having fun.
Pollard’s own drunkeness started to take a toll on the show’s pace as it neared the end of the main set, and he stopped two false starts on the song “Heavy Metal Breakfast.” He began missing more of those beer bottles tossed into the air, slurring some of the words, or just handing the microphone out into the audience while he staggered over to the bar for more booze from Trader Vic.
But when the band came back for two encores and Pollard vowed to “kick ass,” the sounds were splendid indeed. A fast-paced hit parade of sorts, the kind that great GBV concerts also climax with: “My Impression Now,” “My Valuable Hunting Knife,” “Queen of Cans and Jars,” “Hot Freaks,” “Motor Away,” “I Am a Scientist,” “Teenage FBI,” “Echos Myron” (always one of my favorites, with that classic line — “And we’re finally here, and shit yeah, it’s cool, and shouldn’t it be, or something like that”). The audience, which had seemed lethargic an hour earlier (probably because of the late hour), was pumped up now, singing every word, waving fists and fingers into the air. After Pollard introduced “Smothered in Hugs” as the final GBV song ever and I heard the opening chords and that indelible melody, I actually found myself getting a little choked up. Is it ridiculous to feel this way about a band you’ve loved for more than a decade, whose albums and concerts have been important milestones in your musical life?
I thought that might be the end, but after emcee Beatle Bob briefly took the stage to extend GBV’s thanks to its fans, the group came back for more. Pollard said he’d given a lot of thought to the songs he would play for the last GBV encore ever, and it was a fine way to end things:
“A Salty Salute” … Of course! How could they end without playing that one more time?
“Postal Blowfish” … another one of those songs that vaulted from obscurity and oddity to a solid position in the GBV repertoire.
“Pendulum,” which Pollard introduced as “We’ll put on some Cat Butt and do it up right” … another rarely heard early classic.
“Dayton, OH 19 Something and 5” … an obvious sentimental favorite.
“He’s the Uncle” … seems like an obscure choice to me, but I guess I’ll have to listen to this song more to figure out why Pollard included it.
“Exit Flagger” … This was the final song of the first GBV concert I ever saw. I still feel compelled to sing along with it.
And finally, a song that Pollard introduced as “The Ballad of Guided By Voices.” You could feel his emotion as he acknowledged the members of his band one last time. The song was actually “Don’t Stop Now,” with a fitting title for the band’s coda. As Pollard calmly delivered his last lines, it was hard for a GBV fan not to get goose pimples.
The goof, Nate Farley, was the last one to leave the stage, unable to resist one more chance to slap the hands of adoring fans. The crowd tried to rouse one more encore with another chant of “GBV! GBV!,” carrying on for a couple of minutes even after the lights and canned music had come on, but this really was the end.
Over the Neptune / Mesh Gear Fox
Watch Me Jumpstart
Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking)
Things I Will Keep
(New Year’s Countdown)
Glow Boy Butlers
Lethargy (with Jim Pollard)
The Best of Jill Hives
Red Ink Superman
14 Cheerleader Coldfront (with Tobin Sprout adding vocals)
The Girls of Wild Strawberries
Back to the Lake
Demons Are Real
Do the Earth
Beg for a Wheelbarrow
My Kind of Soldier
Wished I Was a Giant
Bright Paper Werewolves (with Leland Cain)
Lord of Overstock (with Leland Cain)
Window of My World
Navigating Flood Regions
Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory
Tractor Rape Chain
I Am a Tree (with John Wuerster from Superchunk on drums)
Chief Barrel Belly
Game of Pricks
Matter Eater Lad
Redmen and Their Wives
Gonna Never Have to Die
I Drove a Tank (with Greg Demos and Jim MacPherson)
Shocker in Gloomtown (with Greg Demos and Jim MacPherson)
If We Wait
Huffman Prairie Flying Field
Sad if I Lost It
Buzzards and Dreadful Crows
Alone, Stinking, and Unafraid
Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy (with Matt Sweeney on bass)
Johnny Appleseed (with Jim Greer and Tobin Sprout)
Heavy Metal Country
My Impression Now
My Valuable Hunting Knife
Queen of Cans and Jars
Hot Freaks (with Tobin)
I Am a Scientist (with Don Thrasher)
Echos Myron (Tobin adding vocals)
Smothered in Hugs
A Salty Salute
Dayton, OH 19 Something and 5
He’s the Uncle
Don’t Stop Now