Guided By Voices
Showbox At The Market
My experience with Guided By Voices began by listening to their spectacularly eclectic 7th album, 1994‘s Bee Thousand. The way that the guitars entered on “Hardcore UFO’s” was like nothing that I had ever heard before; shoddy production somehow managed to sound pristine. The lo-fi hiss on the LP even became endearing after multiple listens. I found chords for the entire twenty-track masterpiece online, and played along with my recently purchased $100 Epiphone acoustic. I had just begun learning the instrument around the same time, and it shaped how I came to view song structure.
Now in the 20th year since its release, Bee Thousand is certainly a source of nostalgia. Comprised of kick-ass rock songs penned by lead singer, Robert Pollard (“Echos Myron,” “I am a Scientist”); more sensitive numbers from guitarist, Tobin Sprout (“Ester’s Day,” “Awful Bliss”); and gleeful throwaways (“Kicker of Elves”); it’s a variety hour recorded on tape. Tracks like “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory,” and “Smothered in Hugs,” somewhere down the line, gained the ability to make me feel like a 14 year old again. Although most of the tunes contain nonsensical lyrics–like, “I walked into the house of miraculous recovery and stood before king everything/ and he asked me to join him in the red wing/ took me to pie land said “I’m a thigh man”/ I will be eternally hateful” from “Hot Freaks“–they work to make the meaningful lyrics more relevant. I mean, half of the rock lyrics out there are bullshit anyway, and the boys from Dayton, Ohio enjoy loudly displaying absurdities. They sounded like how they actually were, which was what made them so appealing. Stripped down, under produced songs that clocked in at less than two minutes were being delivered by a group whose frontman’s favorite band was early Genesis.
At any rate, GBV existed in various forms until 2005, at which time Pollard called it quits on the project. After the success of Bee Thousand, they left their day jobs, signed to Matador Records, and continued to gain a steady cult following; but they failed to ever obtain a wider audience. In 2010, the quintet reunited to perform with their classic 1993-96 lineup for Matador’s 21st anniversary celebration. During their recent Seattle performance, Pollard explained that it was due to them having such a good time during that reunion that they decided to start making new music again. After all these years, Guided By Voices still stands out with their unshakable habit of writing fragmented numbers and prolifically releasing albums. Since officially reforming, they have released 6 full-length studio albums over the last three years.
When I caught them at The Showbox last month, Robert Pollard declared that there would be three particular albums from the group’s dense catalog that they would be mainly drawing from that night. The first two would be Motivational Jumpsuit and Cool Planet, which came out in February and May of this year, respectively. Lastly, was Bee Thousand, in honor of the 2 decade anniversary of the influential record. Still, the whole show was, notably, geared toward an older audience. Even the songs playing on the PA between acts were, at minimum, fifteen years old (“Spit on a Stranger” by Pavement, “About A Girl” by Nirvana, “Monkey Gone to Heaven” by the Pixies). Although there’s nothing wrong with Cool Planet, it was obvious to everyone in the room that people weren’t there for the new releases. As the frontman later commented, “Gotta play the new shit first.”
Admirers were there to imbibe—both in alcohol and in music. The band had even brought coolers full of beer with them on stage. In a 1999 interview with the A.V. Club, Pollard, admittedly, equated the Grateful Dead following’s occupation with LSD to GBV fans’ celebration of beer. To put it simply—the crowd wanted to get drunk with the band and hear the hits.
Live, Pollard was always the focal point. As the event went on, and as the number of beers consumed grew numerous, he became more and more loquacious, spouting wisdom and talking shit (or something like that). GBV, he claimed, were the first act to do a “classic lineup” tour in recent years, and now others, like Dinosaur Jr. and John Spencer Blues Explosion, have copied them. Many topics were covered, even sports were mentioned, when he compared the Seattle Seahawks to Cleveland Browns. Tirades grew longer as the night grew later, along with anecdotes ranging from him and his wife considering moving to Seattle, to recounting memories of Washington bands. He can certainly play the role of the drunken charmer. On multiple occasions, Pollard would take a fifth of whiskey, have a sip, and then hand the rest to the crowd. “What did you guys pay for this show, five dollars?” he asked the audience (the price at the door was $40). He can also still do karate kicks above his head and swing his microphone around like a lasso. Most importantly, with completely white hair, he croons with the best of ‘em.
Throughout their solid two-hour set–of which guitarist, Mitch Mitchell was never without a lit cigarette in his mouth–the indie rock pioneers delved heavily into the 3 albums announced by Pollard, while mixing in other tracks like “Teenage FBI,” off of Do The Collape (1991); along with “Game Of Pricks” and “A Salty Salute,” both from 1995‘s Alien Lanes. Occasionally, Sprout would come into the spotlight, briefly performing one of his quieter offerings, such as Bee Thousand numbers, “Yours to Keep” and “Awful Bliss,” but Pollard‘s overpowering vocals would often ruin the songs’ aesthetics. Overall, the show was very well rehearsed, and every member of the band seemed to love playing both the new and the old stuff. Chubby men with receding hairlines surrounded me, consistently chanting “GBV!”
The crowd scored three encores from the band. After each resurgence, Pollard would come out and say, “THIS is the oldest song in the set.” On the final encore, they played a track that he claimed to have penned back in 1977. From the time that song was written, it took until the group’s 1992 album Propeller for them to finally gain some notoriety and an audience. Yet, all that time, they kept persevering, purely out of a love for music. They were just doing what they enjoyed doing, and it clearly shows in every aspect of their work.
Consequently, this might lead someone to view Guided By Voices as an “everyman’s band.” I mean, the formula’s there–rock music, entertaining frontman, tons of beer–but this is an inelegant distraction from the people on stage performing songs that are unapologetically unconventional. As I learned when I was playing along with Bee Thousand so long ago, the structures and lyrics are just odd, which makes their playing so exceptional. In some ways, I feel as if GBV was a band with very heavy “classic rock” roots that kind of stumbled into the whole Lo-Fi thing and, thankfully for everyone, ran with it with probably more confidence than anyone else. It’s a total oversimplification, and ignores a lot of what the group is about, but it does help explain how Pollard isn’t afraid of a few theatrics.
There is one thing that weighed on my mind about the concert. In 1994, when GBV was creating groundbreaking material that sounded like no one else, people would have never come out like they do now, in 2014. It’s certainly a disappointing thing to consider, but I suppose that’s how the music business works; give an act twenty years for critics to claim that something they’ve done was profound, and they’ll slowly gain a bigger fan base than they ever had when they were originally together. Still, these guys deserve a wide audience, and I’m glad that they have finally gained it.