March 28, 2022

Indie Rock (and Cuervo) Gold

Guided by Voices
Revolution Hall - Portland, OR
March 27, 2022

"Who do you think you are, Jethro Tull?

This snarky inquiry wasn't from a heckling audience member, but rather, a smiling, self-aware Bob Pollard after a rendition of "Moses on a Snail," a proggy number that culminated in ascendant riffing that found the singer slowly raising his arms and hands in religious fervor. The next logical step might have been speaking in tongues, but fear not, infidels: Uncle Bob picked up his Miller Lite, took a swig and got on with other sacred business.

This Guided by Voices phenomenon is remarkable, and it endures. But what does one make of these Dayton, Ohio indie rock kings in 2022? They're 39 years into their inspirational story, with nearly as many lineup changes, albums and songs as beers consumed onstage. The center of the GBV universe, of course, is Robert Pollard, a former schoolteacher whose unlikely "parachutist into a boxing ring"-level party-crash of the indie rock world in the '90s still feels like a miracle. And there are fewer more reassuring sights than this fully-invested bon vivant joyfully kicking his leg backward, twirling his mic, and doing his signature high kick when his band launches into yet another irresistible anthem. Pollard is white-haired and 64 years old, but time has not diminished him.

Pollard, March and Gillard
When it comes to choosing songs, where does Guided by Voices even start? Pollard and company are on the road, theoretically supporting their 35th album Crystal Nuns Cathedral, but since it's their sixth album since 2020, there's an always-swelling pile of tunes to craft a setlist from (seriously, there are thousands). "Prolific" is the word that is most often attached to Pollard, and justifiably: By his own admission on this night, he's put out 117 albums, if you count GBV and all his solo and side projects. The task of putting together a setlist is enough to drive a bandleader to drink. Luckily, provisions were acquired, and as usual, a cooler sat onstage, and Captain Pollard fished a bottle of Cuervo Gold and endless beers from it. 

Whatever the setlist yields, though, this band's barley soda-guzzling cult is down for whatever, and ready to sing along. The 49 riff-heavy tunes GBV cranked out at Revolution Hall in Portland (a converted high school auditorium) kept spirits high, and the "G-B-V!" chant inevitably made its appearance a few songs in. And the thrill of surprise  for those avoiding the spoilers of previous tour stop setlists, anyway  was very much in effect. For every predictable, "they can't leave without playing that" selection like "Motor Away," "Echoes Myron" or "Game of Pricks," there were plenty of recent tunes and tasteful picks from the GBV/solo Bob repertoires: "Climbing a Ramp" (from 2022's Crystal Nuns Cathedral), "The Disconnected Citizen" (from 2021's Earth Man Blues), "King 007" (from 2017's How Do You Spell Heaven) and "Love is Stronger Than Witchcraft" (from Pollard's 2006 solo LP From a Compound Eye).

There was a welcome middle ground, too, as the less familiar (i.e. newer) tracks were offset by standout gems from across the colossal GBV songbook, including "Your Name is Wild," "Back to the Lake," "I Am a Tree," and "My Kind of Soldier." There is a copious amount of musical gold to dig for in this catalog, of course. But not everything worked: The harmonies on the reflective "Twilight Campfighter" were sloppy compared to the slick studio version (that is just a tough tune to improve live), while "Man Called Blunder" was a case study in the sometimes plodding, mid-set lull that naturally happens during a two and a half-hour show. 

Overall, though, these guys came to play. Having witnessed this band in action since the year 2000, there's no question of its evolution — there is now a sharpness, a rhythmic complexity, and subtle prog-rock elements dovetailing nicely with the power chords and power pop, lifting Guided by Voices to a higher echelon artistically. Many moments of this performance legitimately felt like "next-level GBV." The chemistry and enthusiasm onstage was evident, and one imagines Pollard is thrilled to have a steady, consistent lineup of GBV to go out there with. Axeman Bobby Bare, Jr., bassist Mark Shue, and GBV vets Kevin March (drums) and sharp-shooting guitarist Doug Gillard rocked an array of material in winning fashion. Additionally, it was charming to see Pollard act paternal with the youthful Shue, calling him "Colonel Whitepants" due to his stage attire. 

On a similar note, Pollard's self-deprecating stage banter is a hilarious aspect of any of his gigs; tonight he lamented that the pop act Fine Young Cannibals (!) was somehow a bigger band than GBV (he even sarcastically sung a line from FYC's biggest hit: "She drives me crazy!" to which the audience automatically lobbed the song's "whoo! whoo!" back at him). However, Pollard, seeing the beer bottle as half full, did remind the crowd that Fine Young Cannibals don't have a song as great as the next one GBV was about to play — "Smothered in Hugs." Fair enough, Bob... we can examine that Jethro Tull comparison another day.