Live: Guided By Voices Reconfigure Time And Space

Guided By Voices w/Wavves, Surfer Blood McCarren Park Saturday, June 18, 2011

Better than: Just hearing the show without seeing it, which is what everyone who lives on my street got to do anyway.

It's long been gospel that you can't tell Robert Pollard anything. Attempts by well-meaning biz types to get the pop-song savant to make things easier on people by downgrading his release schedule to merely flooding the market, or resisting his love of lyrical absurdism, were clearly not taken to heart by a man whose second 2011 release has a song called "Ash Ript Telecopter."

So if Pollard has decided that "Guided By Voices is a New York band," as he did during his reunited group's Northside Festival headlining set on Saturday, then there is no arguing the point that Guided By Voices are a New York band. Dayton, Ohio, he said, is only eight hours away from our fair city, so it's basically the same thing. Much like "people from Spokane say they're from Seattle."

Considering the enthusiastic response Pollard got earlier in his group's characteristically marathon set when, after praising the borough's beauty, he asked, "if I moved to Brooklyn, would you take care of me and my old lady?" I imagine that New York residents won't mind if Pollard fudges some geographical details as long as we can claim him as our own. (He elaborated: He'd get up, drink a lot of espresso, get a slice around 2 p.m. and head to the bar around happy hour. Get this man some sort of artisan hobby—he'd probably excel at one of The Meat Hook's butchering classes—and he would fit right in.)

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Break-up/reunion cycles sure are getting shorter, huh? Pollard retired the Guided By Voices band name seven years ago and then carried on much as he always has, releasing too many collections of weird, fuzzy, effortlessly effective pop rock to keep track of, this time under his own name. As part of last year's Matador Records 21st-anniversary party, Pollard reconvened what he calls the "classic line-up" of guitarists Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell, bassist Greg Demos and drummer Kevin Fennell; this lineup (for the most part, it's always tricky with these guys) appeared on "Greatest Albums Of The '90s" perennials like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. Those were the albums that turned Guided By Voices from a long-running Ohio schoolteacher's hobby to one of the most influential groups in indie rock. Or any genre, really. With his unyielding stream of inspired nonsense word soup, Pollard in many ways looks like a spiritual forbearer to Lil B.

It's debatable if this "classic" outing really needed to happen. Pollard's relentless tour and release schedule and tendency to tell people "I am Guided By Voices" burned out most of the breakthrough lineup and their livers by 1997. But Guided By Voices never quit making solid albums (Isolation Drills is perhaps their best late-period release, though I see you, Earthquake Glue fans) and performing beer-drenched revues. Not much has changed, except for the intensity of the touring cycle, with Pollard's solo career. It seemed he only quit using the marquee name out of noble ideas about ending on a high note and not wearing out his welcome. But it would be churlish to deny anyone, audience or band, the fun being had on Saturday.

Demos, wearing an absolutely ridiculous combo of leather vest and frilly white shirt (think Beauty And The Beast or a PBS period drama), was clearly delighted to be taking time off from his attorney gig to be a rock star again, endlessly indulging in a series of bass-face muggings while goofily holding his instrument high to his chest. Mitchell has apparently morphed into a member of Social Distortion, complete with sleeve and neck tattoos. That he was willing to occasionally stop smoking to sing background vocals seems the clearest sign that he was also happy to be there. But the biggest applause was for guitarist Tobin Sprout, who sang (in a voice eerily similar to Pollard's) lead on "14 Cheerleader Coldfront" and demonstrated that his chiming, British Invasion-indebted buzzing and knack for piling up hooks were as key to GBV's template as Pollard's odd vision.

 

The setlist was heavy on crowd pleasers like the back to back "I Am A Scientist" and "Game Of Pricks," which closed the main set, but also included obscurities like the third encore's "My Impression Now," one of many dynamite songs placed on an obscure release (in this case, the Fast Japanese Spin Cycle EP, as Pollard helpfully pointed out) that still garnered as much singing along as a staple like "Exit Flagger." Pollard's voice sounded strained at times, but his karate kicks and between-song asides (he'll have you know he swigs Cuervo, not that "Caba Waba" shit) were in fine form, which is probably more important. During second encore number "A Salty Salute," he started riffing on the refrain "the club is open," asking us if we wanted the club to be open right around the time Northside's volunteers seemingly shrugged, said "fuck it" and let the many, many people watching the show from McCarren's grassy areas to get closer to the stage and cheer for the inspired nonsense of "My Valuable Hunting Knife." If the swelled crowd was any indication, Pollard's new hometown is happy to let him keep his club open as long as he likes.

A note about the openers. Guided By Voices are often called one of the progenitors of the lo-fidelity recording sound. They certainly were not the first band to use cheap recording techniques, but they were one of the most popular. Many of GBV's followers seem to forget that cheap recordings that emphasize hissing feedback and discordant empty space are cool but meaningless when not tied to indeliable melodies and some indication of emotional investment; this is not Guided By Voices' fault. To be fair, Wavves have grown some hooks since their early releases (which were some of the primary offenders of the new wave of lo-fi's sound over substance problems), but even the catchier material that they played from King Of The Beach felt like proof that a stompbox and a few other aesthetic trappings can sometimes be enough to bluff your way out of the second-stage Warped Tour gig that should be your birthright.

West Palm Beach's Surfer Blood have avoided comparisons as direct as "lo-fi," generally getting tagged as a more piecemeal distillation of the early '90s alternative rock aesthetic: a pinch of Superchunk here, a dollop of Weezer there. Like many young bands these days, they seemed to get pushed out of the oven before they were ready. An early gig I saw showed a band with one great song ("Swim," which felt like a rush of sugared-up guitars riding a loop of prime Brian Wilson hooks), several good ones and a worrying dearth of stage presence. They still don't seemed fully formed, but they're getting there. Singer John Paul Pitts has trouble consistently projecting himself, but in his best moments he brings to mind one of the alt-rock era's less-heralded singers, Smoking Popes frontman Josh Carter. Both are velvet-voiced crooners who sound like they would have been right at home if they'd been born during the time of Torme and Bennett, instead of being forced to embrace feedbacky guitars by accident of birth. Surfer Blood have now done enough tours that they don't look awkward on stage anymore, which is a promising sign. Even more promisingly, their new songs were their best songs (except for "Swim"), and showed that they figured out that their band is at its best when it's at its briskest.

Critical bias: Wavves frontman Nathan Williams's dis of Marnie Stern, who is the best, makes me disinclined to like him, though I'd be willing to let that go if I thought his music was more memorable.

Overheard: Totally saw Courtney Love at this thing. Either she was engaging in some Alternative Nation nostalgia or, more likely, she was doing that thing where she tries to associate with whatever band is hot and buzzing or whatever in order to look cool. That this means she was likely there for Wavves makes me wonder who I should be more embarrassed for.

Random notebook dump: True story: In college my friend Jon Foerster was hanging out with an acquaintance named Tony. Tony was a very smart, culturally knowledgeable man whose social skills could best be described by the phrase "way into college radio." Jon, for reasons I can't recall, said aloud "I wonder whatever happened to Tobin Sprout?" Tony then pulled his wallet out and removed a page from the Chicago phonebook that he had ripped out that had Sprout's phone number circled. "I don't know," he replied, "why don't you call him?" GBV are that kind of band. (To the best of my knowledge, Jon never did call.)

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