“This is the greatest club in the world.” – Robert Pollard
Guided By Voices, who recently completed a blisteringly successful alcohol-tinged reunion tour of the States, have always been underdogs. The group was an indie rock footnote (albeit a great one) with an epic output and questionable recording techniques in Dayton, Ohio in the late ’80s and early ’90s. They hit it in big with 1994’s lo-fi masterpiece Bee Thousand – then everyone but lead singer and songwriter Pollard left the group within two years. Group members came and went, and the band, never achieving the popularity it had in its heyday, broke up in 2004.
But now, the group – lead singer Robert Pollard, guitarist and backing vocalist Tobin Sprout, guitarist Mitch Mitchell, bassist Greg Demos and drummer Kevin Fennell – have reunited. Those would be the people responsible for the band’s classic and much beloved 1992 to 1996 recordings. And through osmosis or witchcraft or the grace of God, the group somehow sounds and acts like they did then – Who-style stage antics, soaring mile-high hooks, and, yes, myriad cigarettes and beer.
When their winding U.S. tour finally brought the guys to the east coast via Washington DC’s 9:30 Club in late October, it was clear when the group hit the stage that this wasn’t your older brother’s – or, God forbid, your dad’s – Guided By Voices. The band, already old when they “made it” with Bee Thousand, are definitely older – guitarist/singer Tobin Sprout’s once-curly locks have long since vacated the premises, for instance.
But put that reunion-as-a-cash-in thought in a sack and drown it. Elderstatemen though they may be, Guided by Voices are alcohol-fueled supermen – despite nearly all of them being dads. The show at the 9:30 Club gave off more energy than most shows by bands half their age. Playing in the Pollard-labeled “greatest club in the world” certainly didn’t hurt. Neither did the five-day break the band had following their west coast tour, which seemed to give them a primal energy not evidenced in later shows in Philly and New York.
But forget the energy, the drinking, and the ages – it was the songs people were there to see, and in that department, the band didn’t disappoint. Over a 40-song setlist (?!), the group nailed the tunes that were closest to hits for them: “I Am a Scientist,” “Hot Freaks,” “Game of Pricks.” They also trotted out more obscure tunes like “Jar of Cardinals,” with its creamy melodic bounciness, and the abbreviated superhero story “Matter Eater Lad.”
Even more welcome were the full-band arrangements of the Sprout-led “A Good Flying Bird” and “Bright Paper Werewolves,” and a tour debut of the spunky acoustic ditty “Hey Aardvark” from the Static Airplane Jive EP. Propeller’s “Lethargy” lurched along as Pollard and Mitchell led a drunken call and response about how they don’t give a fuck about the Mayan calendar, because in 2012, they’re eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Give credit where it’s due to Demos and Mitchell for owning the stage along with Pollard. Demos, decked out in his famous (in certain circles) tight striped pants, was pure energy, sweating profusely and egging the crowd on to sing more often and louder. And all that moving around and posturing couldn’t hide the fact that he’s a talented and nimble bassist – just check out his melodic, higher-fret work on scream-the-words-to-the-rafters rocker “Tractor Rape Chain” to see so for yourself.
If Demos is pure energy, then Mitchell is pure trash, in a charming way – kind of like the human equivalent of Mr. Fusion from Back to the Future II. The tattooed guitarist’s stagehand had the unenviable task of carefully placing cigarettes into Mitchell’s mouth throughout the show and lighting them, often mid-song. When he opened his mouth to talk, every other word was a expletive. When he wasn’t ashing all over himself, Mitchell took to running in circles, his bandmates giving him a wide berth.
But the star was (and always has been) Pollard. Clad in a nondescript button up and proudly displaying his grayish-white hair, Uncle Bob was on a mission to prove he can still rock. Nailing the vocal jumps in “Tractor Rape Chain” and “My Son Cool” seemed no issue, and he dusted off most of his classic rock star moves – high kicks, Who-esque mic twirls, and assorted jumps. The former schoolteacher is still the essence of rock and roll, a history lesson on how to write, record, and perform music.
The show wore on and began to wobble, but the music – and especially Pollard’s vocals – held firm. The stoic Sprout struck a couple of wide-legged rock star moves – a lot for him. Mitchell sang the entirety of dumb rocker “Postal Blowfish” with a cigarette still in his mouth. A red-haried woman got up on stage and danced somewhat sexily with Sprout before being politely led away. Pollard brought all the roadies out on stage and introduced them to the crowd before telling them to “get the fuck off the stage.” Instead of mean, it seemed fitting – this was an evening for the band to take in the adoration of the DC crowd and dole it back to them, in cigarette smoke, spilled beer and classic indie rock.
The less said about opener Sweet Apple, however, the better. The group performed decent power pop, buoyed by none other than J. Mascis (of Dinosaur Jr.) on drums. But lead singer John Petkovic, all six-plus feet of him, moved like Robert Plant if he’d been roofied.
Whether he was railing against politics (“Fuck politics!”), tripping over his monitor or launching his tambourine in the air with no regard for where it landed, Petkovic had no idea what to do with himself. After stumbling around and yelling at the audience, even his bandmates seemed to tire of him, filling the dead space between songs with extended feedback to prevent Petkovic from talking.