all STUNNING photos: Josh Sisk (.com)
all words: Philip Runco
“There are three of us on the list,” the middle-aged gentleman with expensive glasses informed the 9:30 Club employee behind the will call window.
“Who is that?”
“Uh, he’s in the band. Guided by Voices. He’s in Guided by Voices.”
Okay, so maybe not everyone was eagerly anticipating the Guided by Voices “classic line-up” tour.
But standing within the concert hall’s walls, the mood approached hysterical. Fans have waited over five years for Robert Pollard to reform Guided by Voices – and who honestly didn’t think this day would come? – but his decision to do so with guitarist Tobin Sprout, his former creative foil, instead of hired hands has leant the tour heightened expectations. Before the lights even dimmed, the overwhelmingly male audience couldn’t resist chants of “G! B! V!” The testosterone in the air was palpable.
As expected, Guided by Voices stoked that energy. Shortly after coming out, Robert Pollard hoisted his tequila handle, telling the crowd, “I got a bottle of Cuervo,” and implicitly encouraging similar consumption. The rest of the band made frequent trips to a beer cooler, conveniently located near the drum set. As the familiar blue and red neon sign glowing behind them reminded everyone: The club is open.
“The club is open.” It’s a line repeated towards the end of “A Salty Salute”, a song that popped up midway through the second of three encores. In the song, Pollard is singing about a bar or some watering hole, so for a band whose live reputation is tied inseparably to its onstage boozing, it’s a more than fitting pull quote.
It’s appropriate in a broader sense though. There’s something about the inclusiveness of the song, of how it evokes a sense of communal gathering, that is the essence of a Guided by Voices show. The band attracts a devoted, if not slightly obsessive fanbase, and in that light, “the club is open” has always felt more of a rallying cry for them than anything else. Yes, there was some obnoxious jockeying for position on Thursday, and a mosh pit broke out on occasion, but for all the bro-ish posturing, I mostly saw a lot of grown men drawn side-by-side, having their own little moments as they mouthed the cryptic, arcane lyrics to nearly all of the set’s forty songs.
Those forty songs were drawn exclusively from Sprout’s 1993 to 1996 run with the band. The albums from that “era” – in Pollard’s words – are undisputedly among the band’s strongest: Propeller, Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushels, Under the Stars. But opening the night with a song from the back side of 7” EP The Grand Hour (“Break Even”), Guided by Voices made clear that anything from that period were on the table.
Of course, the band hit all of the highlights of those full-lengths in due time. It closed the main portion of its set going for the jugular: “Echos Myron”, “I Am a Scientist”, “Game of Pricks”, and “Unleashed! The Large Hearted Boy”. Like everything on the night, these songs came tightly and furiously one after the other, the band pausing little between numbers, save the occasional boastful aside from Pollard (ie, “We just got back from the West Coast. Kicked their fucking ass. Now we’re going to do the same to the East Coast”).
Beyond the set list, a feeling of nostalgia floated throughout the night. Pollard cycled through all his patented moves: swinging his microphone, windmilling, kicking his legs ill-advisedly high. Guitarist Mitch Mitchell and bassist Greg Demos ripped cigarette after cigarette, as if DC had never outlawed such puff-ery. The band’s merch was even stocked with the stiff, chunky Gildan t-shirts that have all but been completely phased out for American Apparel and the like.
Did the presence of Sprout contribute to any more transcendent of an experience? Probably not. He was given some time alone on stage to dig up a few of his understated acoustic entries in the Guided by Voices catalogue (“14 Cheerleader Coldfront”, “Awful Bliss”), but, much as on record, they felt like little more than serviceable palette cleansers.
Sprout’s real value was in providing an excuse for Robert Pollard to stroll down a very specific portion of memory lane. No Isolation Drills (2001). No Do the Collapse (1999). Just a reminder of what made this band so great in the first place. I don’t know how much I stock I would put in my bespectacled fellow concertgoer’s evaluation that Sprout is “in” Guided by Voices again, but I’m certainly willing to pretend for a night.