– by Shawn Conner
What was I thinking?
I was asking this question a few hours into a day-long drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco to see Guided by Voices. Six years after playing its “last” show (New Year’s Eve 2004, at the Metro in Chicago), the Dayton, Ohio band had reunited with its “classic lineup”* for a tour. What had begun with the desire to see this reconstituted version of the band play a three-day party for Matador Records in Las Vegas had, with the announcement of more tour dates, evolved into a plan first to also drive down from Vancouver to see the Portland and Seattle shows and finally into a week-long road trip that would take me from Vegas to Los Angeles and up the coast, following the band like some kind of Dead- or Phish-head.
It was on my way to the third show that I began questioning my sanity. Had GBV fatigue set in so soon? Was it me, or them, or a combination of both?
The night before, in Los Angeles, I’d pulled into my Ramada, just down the street from the Wiltern Theatre, with an hour to spare. Once at the theatre, I was quickly disavowed of my idea that, despite the years of inactivity, the band’s fanbase would have grown exponentially (I had some vague, foolhardy notion that easy access to GBV staples like “Chasing Heather Crazy”, “Glad Girls” and “Teenage FBI” might have created a new generation of crazed fans). Outside the Wiltern, people were literally giving away tickets. This was in stark contrast to the show at the Pearl Concert Theatre, which had been more or less full, in Vegas the previous night.
Still, once inside the Wiltern – an 80-year-old Art Deco theatre with chairless tiers, ideal for seeing the band in no small part because of easy access to a bar at the back – the audience was as rowdy and, once the band kicked into its trademark opener “A Salty Salute”**, as ecstatic as the Vegas crowd. Fists pumping the air, voices singing along to every word, the fans make it as much tent-show revival as rock concert.
After all, some had waited years for this show – some had seen the band, like me, dozens of times, others were seeing it for the first for the first time – and some had traveled a fair distance. A guy came running into the theatre 20 or 30 minutes into the show and, turning to me, asked “Have they played ‘Dodging Invisible Rays’*** yet?” This was Kyle, who had driven after school from Arizona, and was driving up for the San Francisco and Portland shows as well.
The L.A. show marked one first; a sudden rush, the stage filling up with people for a song before they were herded off by security. This spontaneous burst of affection is common at indie-rock shows nowadays but I’d never seen it at a Guided by Voices show. For its part, the band, really only the most popular front for singer Robert Pollard’s drinking and pop genius, was probably as tight and rocking as I’d ever seen it, biting into the songs as only hungry middle-aged rockers finally out of a long hibernation can. The look on chain-smoking (a roadie kept him supplied with lit cigarettes for the shows’ 90-minute duration) guitarist Mitch Mitchell’s face at being given another chance* at rock glory mirrored the excitement on the faces of fans.
The drinks were flowing but no blood was spilled, and at the end the houselights came on and the theatre speakers pumped out Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town” – a typical and knowing gesture from a band with a frontman, Pollard, who never shies away from self-mythologizing.
Still, it was more or less the same show I’d seen the night before; it wasn’t like the good old days when, with way more songs to choose from, Guided by Voices put on a way more unpredictable show.****
And I had three more to go…
End part I. Next: San Francisco.
*”Classic lineup” in scare quotes because there have been a number of lineups, and the “classic period” referred to is the years 1992-96, when the band recorded the albums that broke Guided by Voices outside of Ohio. These include 1994’s Bee Thousand, still many fans’ favourite, and its follow-up Alien Lanes.
**The opening track off Alien Lanes, and a song with a slow but anthemic pace that makes it a perfect air-punching show intro.
***A Tobin Sprout song off Alien Lanes.
****For the classic lineup tour, the band was restricting its set to songs recorded by Pollard, guitarist Mitch Mitchell, singer/songwriter/guitarist Tobin Sprout, drummer Kevin Fennell and bassist Greg Demos. It’s sort of like the Beatles reforming and only playing side one of Meet the Beatles. Only Guided by Voices has better songs.
Guided by Voices at Matador at 21 (Las Vegas)
The epic Guided by Voices West Coast tour diary pt 2 (San Francisco)
Photo gallery – Guided by Voices at the Pearl Concert Theatre, Las Vegas, Oct 3 2010 (Robyn Hanson photos)