Show date: October 4
A rowdy crowd, an exalted entrance and a wall-of-sound take on “A Salty Salute” began the Guided By Voices reunion show in Los Angeles. At the song’s end, the repeated line “The club is open” became a celebratory chant with the audience screaming in ecstatic fervor. It was a good opening.
Before the first note chimed out, the evening already felt like a victory lap for the boys. This is the “classic” lineup of Guided By Voices, including Robert Pollard (who could have just as easily spent the evening writing three new albums instead of playing three, or four, from the mid nineties); Tobin Sprout with the voice (and name) of an Elvin angel; Mitch Mitchell on guitars, perpetual cigarette smoking and Pete Townshend-esque arm flailing, Kevin Fennell on minimal basement style drums (propulsive, cymbal heavy and without needless fills or bravado); and Greg Demos, clad in a leather getup and oversized white shirt most likely from the discount bin in the rock cliché fashion depot, on bass.
These are Ohio’s unlikely lads who came to survey the scene that, in part, belongs to them. Like Neil Young in the 90s strutting around with his feedbacking guitars looking at Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and grunge music in general, GBV can cast their gaze at anyone from The Strokes to Best Coast and know that some of the tracks that those trains chug along have been laid with care by Pollard and company.
Guided By Voices have always been wrapped in their own myth: prolific songwriting with a drunken garage band ethos that marries experimentation with a classic, Beatles-forged blueprint towards song structure. The songs could be clever, fast, slow, melodic, or strange, but (for better or worse) they never felt like the band tried too hard. Or could focus on them for over three minutes. This is exactly how the concert was.
Every song is a shot from the hip, possibly written in the time it took to record it—they are beyond calculation and instead come off like pure instinct, free associative seeds carelessly tossed into the soil to see what sprouts. Sometimes very beautiful things sprout. Many consider Bee Thousand and the GBV albums of the same era to be of the magical crop of weirdly successful and durable songs. This show was for these people.
The playing wasn’t expert, Pollard didn’t exactly hit every note, but the beautiful thing about GBV is that they stacked the deck so artfully that they literally could do no wrong. They never were after gloss or precision, just a few chords and a catchy melody. The cacophony of the distorted guitars sometimes swallowed Pollard’s vocals. Fans kept jumping stage to hug Pollard, dance, or take a shot from his tequila bottle, and band mates sometimes seemed more eager to flirt with girls or do Guitar Hero poses than to play the songs accurately. This all just seemed like part of the fun of the evening.
When the band connected like with “Tractor Rape Chain,” “Don’t Stop Now” and “Johnny Appleseed”, the effects were electric. Even for those who don’t understand GBV, upon hearing gems like these, conversion is likely. I shared most of the audience’s view (from what I could tell) that when Pollard gave up vocal duties to Tobin Sprout, things reached the next level. “Awful Bliss” and “14 Cheerleader Coldfront” are masterpieces whose lyrics and melody cut through to something eternal and beautiful, and all the while don’t really make any sense at all.