Still Kicking: New Year’s Eve with Guided By Voices

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Photo from the Brooklyn Vegan Instagram.

As our nation heads into 2017 on a crest of uncertainty there is still at least one sure thing: Guided By Voices remain the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll band in existence.

When discussing this legendary indie rock outfit the question inevitably becomes: which GbV are we talking about? The “classic line-up” of Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos, and Kevin Fennell that recorded the Holy Trinity of mid-90s lo-fi (Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, Under the Bushes Under the Stars)? Or the reunionized version of said classic line-up, which recorded six wonderful albums from 2012-2014? Or maybe some band permutation founder and singer Pollard put together around killer guitarist Doug Gillard from the late 90s to the mid-2000s?

The answer is: does it really matter? All these iterations (plus other, more shambolic pre-Bee Thousand GbVs) are great, were great, and always will be great. This is GbV! And they—meaning Pollard, Gillard, bassist Mark Shue, rhythm guitarist Bobby Bare, Jr., and drummer Kevin March—played the Music Hall of Williamsburg on New Year’s Eve, and I was there.

Getting to the stage at roughly 10pm, GbV2016 was greeted—as GbV always is—with the chant Pollard himself created for the opening of 1992’s Propeller: “G-B-V! G-B-V! G-B-V!” This is less meatheaded than stirringly emotional: Guided by Voices are one of the great underdog stories in American popular music, a Dayton, Ohio garage band masterminded by a former college pitching star and alcoholic schoolteacher who just happened to be a preternatural (and, as it would turn out, beyond-prolific) songwriter. They could have easily been forever unknown beyond the confines of their hometown if not for Pollard’s fortitude, a general early-90s interest in weirdo basement and bedroom recordings, and a string of good luck. So “G-B-V!”: a stadium-sized chant for a band that—while never fulfilling Pollard’s dreams of arena rock glory—achieved their own form of greatness in unimaginable and deserved fashion.

They opened with “My Valuable Hunting Knife,” one of the many perfect anthems from Alien Lanes, and the crowd was immediately singing, swaying, and fist-pumping along. For the next two hours the band ran the gamut of the Pollard universe, which includes more side projects and solo albums then most bands have songs. Pollard’s one-time band Boston Spaceships was represented by nuggets like “Come On Baby Grace” and “Question Girl All Right”; more recent Pollard project Ricked Wicky by “Mobility” and “Poor Substitute,” the latter a particularly moving Pollard confession of fallibility; and Pollard’s ridiculously prodigious solo output (25 albums in the last two decades) by gems like “Love is Stronger Than Witchcraft” and “Psychic Pilot Clocks Out,” both containing ad nauseam outros that never decrease in rousing anthemicness.

When I saw the classic line-up reunion back in 2011 Pollard revisited some of the stranger and more overlooked corners of the GbV catalogue: the band opened not with “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox” or “A Salty Salute” but instead creepy sci-fi vision “#2 in the Model Home Series” (from 1993’s Vampire on Titus, perhaps the most lo-fi album ever recorded); the hazy psychedelic jangle of “Jane of the Waking Universe” and the heavy psych stomp of “Break Even” (deep cuts from Mag Earwhig! [1997] and The Grand Hour EP [1993], respectively) were represented on par with obvious crowd-pleasers like “Cut-Out Witch.” This time around fewer oddballs appeared: I was glad to see “Expecting Brainchild” and “The Brides Have Hit Glass” make the setlist, but most of the selections were no-brainers: “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” “Back to the Lake,” “Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy,” “I Am a Tree,” “Smothered in Hugs,” “Echos Myron,” and, of course, “Cut-Out Witch.” No cause for complaint.

GbV are touring (or were touring—New Year’s was the final date) in support of Please Be Honest, released earlier this year, and perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was how terrific the songs from this album sounded live. (They also played the two singles from Pollard, Gillard, and Shue side-project ESP Ohio’s Starting Point of the Royal Cyclopean, also released in 2016.) I say “surprise” not because the songs aren’t good, but because PBH is one of the weirder GbV records—performed solely by Pollard, it in many ways resembles Uncle Bob’s rag-tag home studio side project Teenage Guitar (also a solo affair) more than the crunchy power-pop and straightforward acoustic ballads of the classic lineup reunion albums. Yet the band made eerie, multi-sectioned post-punk experiments like “Hotel X (Big Soap)” sound enormous, and Gillard’s use of a phaser effect for “Come On Mr. Christian” introduced a dreamy swirl to a song far more bare-bones on wax. (“My Zodiac Companion,” an instant classic, needed no revisions or adornments.)

Did I mention Gillard is a brilliant guitarist? As a member of GbV from 1997’s Mag Earwhig! to 2004’s Half Smiles of the Decomposed the virtuosic Gillard allowed Pollard to explore more complex songwriting territory than during the classic lineup era. On New Year’s the band didn’t play anything as prog-influenced as “Christian Animation Torch Carriers” or “Beat Your Wings,” but Gillard fleshed out old material and new by adding distinctive—yet never coldly technical—flourishes and solos. Meanwhile, Bare, Shue, and March (not a military command) provided a solid backbone and giddy stage presences—throughout the entire night Shue was grinning, laughing, bouncing around stage, and generally appearing as if he was having a blast. The enthusiasm was infectious, and though I wish the band was allowed a shot at more songs from the classic lineup reunion albums (while terrific, only “Authoritarian Zoo” and “Planet Score” turned up on the setlist), this latest incarnation of GbV looks, and sounds, like a natural band of brothers rather than mere anonymous Pollard backing men.

But, as we all know, Pollard is Guided by Voices, and on New Year’s he held court as the indie rock legend he is. This allowed him to indulge in, and encourage, excessive drinking (Pollard’s alcohol intake is, like his songwriting output, superhuman), which in turn led to hilarious quasi-conversational stage banter—he’s released two Having Fun With Elvis On Stage-esque albums exclusively comprised of the stuff. Between songs Pollard expressed the wish to return to smoking (though “the buzz isn’t worth it”), extolled opening act the Moles and lead singer Richard Davies (“a genius . . . buy everything by them”), and explained the “P.S. dump your boyfriend” lyric from GbV classic “Shocker in Gloomtown” (it was the name of “a shitty band from Indianapolis”). Smack-talking is also a Pollard specialty, and at various moments Uncle Bob made light of Kurt Vile (“I don’t get it”), Merge Records (home to four mid-2000s Pollard solo records, including the self-proclaimed double album masterpiece From a Compound Eye—“They never paid me”), and punk rock, which “doesn’t do love songs.” (Note: ever the teacher, Pollard continually champions “the four P’s” of rock: Pop, Prog, Punk, and Psychedelic. He was only ribbing the punkers.)

Just after midnight struck and the new year commenced Pollard dismissed our nation’s incoming president as “a jerk” and quoted the Who: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.” (As a response Gillard teased the iconic opening of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”) Briefly and facetiously—yet also unnecessarily—venturing into Kanye territory on the same subject (“Losers can’t cry”), Pollard then completely redeemed himself when the band launched into “Subspace Biographies,” perhaps the most beloved track in the solo discography (from 1998’s Waved Out). Over time Pollard’s various teammates have ceded the song’s lead guitar riff to vocal “Ba ba ba/Ba ba ba/Ba ba ba/Ba Baaaa’s” from both Pollard and audience, and the closing, thrice-repeated sing-along chorus remains the ultimate in power-pop affirmation: “I am quail and quasar/I pick you up on radar/I do my job each day/Empties crushed and fired away/And there is nothing worse than/An undetermined person/Can I abuse you please/In my subspace biographies?” One of the side-benefits of GbV’s relative success is Pollard’s surreal and frequently Dada-esque lyrics transforming into rallying cries: I have no idea what that last “Subspace” couplet is supposed to mean, but dammit, when you’re yelling it at the top of your lungs along with a pit full of blissfully pogoing revelers at the start of a new year, it makes perfect sense.

The rest of the show, including three encores, was a run of GbV classic after GbV classic. These are, simply put, some of the greatest rock songs ever written: “Motor Away.” “Fair Touching.” “The Official Ironmen Rally Song.” “Teenage FBI.” “I Am a Scientist.” “Glad Girls.” “Tractor Rape Chain.” “Lethargy.” “A Salty Salute” (rival to “Subspace” in the sing-along stakes). “Not Behind the Fighter Jet.” “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” “Dayton, Ohio—19 Something and 5.” “Exit Flagger.” “Game of Pricks.” “Don’t Stop Now.” (Amidst these: “Do Something Real,” from the excellent 1999 Pollard and Gillard collaboration Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, Boston Spaceships’ “Tabby and Lucy,” and Pollard solo highlight “Get Under It.”) Gillard, Bare, Shue, and March were tight as shit, the pie-eyed crowd was a collective vocal accompanist, and Pollard as ringleader was loving every second of it. It’s easy to imagine him having tired of performing material from the heart of the GbV canon for the past twenty years, but Pollard still sings this stuff as if brand new—this is a guy who achieved minor indie rock stardom at the age of 37 or so and clearly refuses to take for granted the simple yet beautiful thrill of bringing so many people enjoyment through rock ‘n’ roll. Overflowing with good cheer, Uncle Bob repeatedly high five’d and locked hands with audience members, passionately performed his patented stage moves (microphone twirls and impressive high leg kicks), and—in the most moving moment of the entire show—pointed to his bandmates when singing each “And they’re alright” at the end of “Glad Girls.”

Something similar occurred a little later. The show closed with a song Pollard has often used as a capper: The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly,” according to Uncle Bob “the greatest song ever written.” (He’s also cited Who’s Next as his favorite album.) Gillard magically recreated the song’s signature keyboard trills on his guitar and GbV were off to the races, the crowd roaring the famous middle eight along with Pollard. Toward the end of the song Pollard performed a victory lap of high fives and handshakes with audience members, and then departed the stage. That left Gillard, Shue, Bare, and March to extend and elaborate on “Baba,” and the result was glorious. As an acquaintance pointed out afterward, though GbV has largely become “the cult of Bob” (her term), Pollard’s final gesture turned the spotlight over to his friends/bandmates/some seriously talented musicians. What a beautiful, selfless way to begin the year, though any year inaugurated by GbV is starting things out on the right foot. Just don’t stop now.

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