Guided by Voices West Coast reunion tour 2010
In 2010, Guided by Voices reunited after a five-year absence. I had seen the “final” shows, New Year’s Eve and the night before, in Chicago in 2005. I was super-excited to see them again and decided to catch every show on the band’s West Coast tour…
What was I thinking?
I was asking this question a few hours into a day-long drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Six years after playing its “last” show (New Year’s Eve 2004, at the Metro in Chicago), Guided by Voices had reunited with its “classic” lineup (that is, the lineup that had recorded the band’s most popular records, Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes).
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 evolved into a much longer trip. After the Vegas show, I decided, I would catch the Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle shows too. (No Vancouver show was scheduled.)
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?
Guided by Voices at the Pearl Theatre, Palms Casino Resort, Oct. 4
Mike claims to buy everything Robert Pollard releases, from solo albums to his records with other bands (Circus Devils, Boston Spaceships, to name two). His purchases include two copies of both CD and vinyl. AND he pays the shipping charges charged by Rockathon Records (which sells Pollard’s stuff) – and then goes and picks them up himself.
Mike is hardcore.
“If you know that 2,000 people are going to buy whatever you do, then that’s enough,” Mike said, explaining his patron-of-Pollard theory.
He had just taken part in something called the “Alpha/Omega Project”, the goal of which is to listen to nothing but Pollard – from the earliest lo-fi Guided by Voices recordings to whatever his most recent record is. Mike said it took him three weeks, and he was still waiting for the T-shirt given to those who complete the project. Once gone over to Pollard’s house, Bryan added, and been directed by his wife to “the clubhouse”, i.e. the garage where Pollard holds court. “I still get tongue-tied around him,” said Bryan, a successful businessman in his forties.
Mike and Bryan are two GBV super-fans I meet at one of the hotel restaurants. The atmosphere is supercharged, at least among those knots of Guided by Voices fans milling about before the long-awaited reunion show. The show is part of a weekend of indie-rock hosted by label Matador. The label is billing it as Matador at 21, to celebrate its 21st birthday. The reconstituted GBV was headlining the last night of the three-day festival, which also included Matador luminaries such as Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Cat Power and many more.
Las Vegas, and the Palms, is an odd choice of venue.
The Palms has a Playboy Club on the top floor. In the front foyer, a large lit-from-behind poster trumpeted the appearance at the Palms, “one night only”, of porn star Sasha Grey. Pauly D is guest DJing the same weekend. Out by the pool, Katy Perry wails out of the speakers while pale indie-rockers refuse to take off their black Joy Division T-shirts.
The show does not disappoint.
Guided by Voices at the Wiltern, Los Angeles, Oct. 5
Once inside the 80-year-old Art Deco theatre, I find the audience to be just as rowdy as the Vegas crowd. Opener “A Salty Salute” inspired instant fist-pumping and singing. A GBV show at its best is as much tent-show revival as rock concert.
Some had waited years for this show. One guy came running into the theatre 20 or 30 minutes into the show. “Have they played ‘Dodging Invisible Rays’ yet?” he asked. This turned out to be Kyle. He had driven in after school from Arizona. This marked his first GBV show.
At one point, people rushed the stage for a song (I forget which). Security quickly herded them off. Spontaneous bursts of affection like this are common enough at indie-rock shows nowadays. But this was the first time I’d seen it at a GBV show.
For its part, the band was probably as tight and rocking as I’d ever seen it. Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, drummer Kevin Fennell and bassist Greg Demos bit into the songs like hungry middle-aged rockers just coming out of a long hibernation. The happy look on Mitchell’s face at being given another chance* at rock glory mirrored the excitement on the faces of fans.
A roadie kept the chain-smoking guitarist supplied with lit cigarettes for the shows’ 90-minute duration. Drinks flowed onstage as well. When the houselights came on after the last song, theatre speakers pumped out Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town”. It was an appropriate choice.
As fun as it was, the show was not much different than the one I’d seen the night before. It wasn’t like previous tours, when it seemed the sets would differ nightly.
Three more to go.
Guided by Voices at the Waldorf, San Francisco, Oct. 6
It’s a long drive, at least six hours, from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I hadn’t quite worked this into my calculations. Factor in the time it took me to get moving in the a.m., plus an errand to make the drive more enjoyable, plus L.A. traffic, and the I-5 wasn’t stretching out before me until 3 in the afternoon. This didn’t give me much time to get to the city, find my hotel, boot it down to the Waldorf and buy a ticket.
I arrive at the Warfield with minutes to spare; 10 minutes after buying a balcony ticket and grabbing my seat, the band comes out. From my perch I can see people freak out as Guided by Voices launches into what has become its signature opener, “A Salty Salute”.
I wish I could say that what followed was an appreciably different set from the one in Los Angeles the night before, but it wasn’t. Only the crowd reaction was different, or seemed so from where I was sitting – in San Francisco, a couple of people (well, dudes) jumped up onstage to take a picture of themselves with Pollard; also, there was more (though not much) stage-diving and crowd-surfing.
Instead of wondering which song was next, I found myself looking forward to moments I knew were coming – and readying myself for the more cringe-worthy ones. In the former department: Pollard’s intro to “Gold Star for Robot Boy” which, for some reason, always cracked me up; his line about “the textbook committee” from the tune “Smothered in Hugs”; just about all his stage banter, really.
In the latter camp: a long intro before the band came out onstage of a man’s voice from what sounded like an old instructional record; the crass spoken-word break in “Lethargy” (“I don’t give a shit,” says Pollard. “Mitch doesn’t give a shit. Tobin doesn’t give a fuck,” ad nauseum); guitarist Mitch Mitchell talking about all that “[fill in blank with name of city] pussy” in the encore.
Crystal Ballroom, Portland, Oct 8
Outside of Seattle, Portland is probably my most visited American city. Road trips down to the Oregon city from Vancouver are among my fondest road-trip memories. Guided by Voices‘ appearance there, at the Crystal Ballroom, was a prime motivating factor in embarking on this whole affair in the first place. I was looking forward to spending at least a few hours just hanging out before the show.
I’d survived Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco, one show right after another. But there was a day’s grace between the San Francisco and Portland shows, owing to the length of the drive. It’s 12 hours with the wind at your back.
I ended up staying a night in Eugene, at the quaint, rustic Timbers Motel. The next day I drove into Portland and took a room at the uber-hip Jupiter Hotel ($100+, street parking). It’s pod-like suites and attached hipster hangout the Doug Fir Lounge make this a Portland favourite. I also like that each suite comes with a copy of The Four Agreements.
Before the show, I met up with some fans. They were drinking at Ringlers, a sports bar next door to the Crystal Ballroom. Kyle from Arizona was there as well. While we were chatting, I spotted band member Tobin Sprout outside. Kyle rushed out to say “hi.” He reported back that the singer/guitarist had been surprised anyone would be excited to meet him. At a table at Ringlers, guitarist Mitch Mitchell. He was at a table with Robert Pollard’s son Bryan, identifiable by his mop of curly hair a la dad’s, and Mitchell’s cigarette tech.
And then it was show-time. At this point, I was getting off more on watching the crowd react to the songs than watching the band. I can’t rightly say if the Portland show was better or worse than the other three. It seemed like the band had more energy, and that the songs rocked harder, and that the setlist included a couple of additions—”Watch Me Jumpstart” and “Bright Paper Werewolves”.
It was another 90-minute-plus, three-encore affair. Pollard & co. doling out “hit after hit” from Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, obscure EPs (Pollard seems to really love announcing the title Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer, which features set staple “Matter Eater Lad”) and a couple of other records. It was a great show, but they were all great, and all turning into one great big Guided by Voices blur.
Showbox Sodo, Seattle, Oct. 9
Seattle was always going to be a special show. Guided by Voices haven’t been up to Vancouver since an ill-fated 2004 (2005?) show, when they drove to the wrong venue (apparently, there’s a Red Room in Surrey, an hour from the Red Room in downtown Vancouver). If Vancouverites wanted that GBV magic, they would have to drive south. And many did.
But excitement for the Saturday night Seattle show was tempered by a couple of things. For one, the venue, Showbox Sodo, wasn’t the centrally located Showbox I’d been to for many shows previous, including two Guided by Voices appearances; this one was in the no-man’s land south of downtown, south even of the stadium. As well, as one of the local weeklies had pointed out, Seattle now has “stringent laws” against drinking onstage. What would the notoriously hard-drinking Pollard do?
Well, the Showbox Sodo is a shit venue in a shit location, but we managed to find a bar full of hard-drinking GBV fans just across the street. Once we were inside, the Showbox Sodo’s limitations fell away amidst the beaming faces of Seattle and Vancouver fans, all anticipating the start of the show.
As usual for this tour, the band’s entrance was preceded by a lengthy voiceover from what sounded like an old instructional record, interspersed with a soundclip of Barack Obama saying “guided by voices”. When the five members finally came out the party really started; people pressed shoulder to shoulder to the front of the stage**, raising their arms to punch the air and singing along as Guided by Voices ripped into the trusty show-starter “A Salty Salute”, followed by the single track “Shocker in Gloomtown” and perennial Bee Thousand favourite “Tractor Rape Chain”.
Pollard addressed the no-stage-drinking rules early on, announcing they didn’t apply to Guided by Voices. Simple enough.
By now I was pretty familiar with the set – five shows in seven days, with basically the same songs each night, will do that. The band was as tight, maybe tighter than at any other time I’d seen them, and Sprout, Mitchell, Fennell, Demos and Pollard rocked with the confidence of knowing they were running through one helluva great batch of songs – “Gold Star for Robot Boy”. “Matter Eater Lad”. “Game of Pricks”. “Smothered in Hugs”. “Hot Freaks”. “My Impression Now”. “Echoes Myron”. “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows”. And 30 or so more…
But, as I’ve said, I was getting off more on people’s reactions. And so my favourite moment probably wasn’t any one song, or line, or anything that happened onstage. It was when my girlfriend, who had disappeared early on into the melee, came out of the crush at the front of the stage.
I’d hung back but she got right in there and, according to her, she’d come “this close” to getting a swig from Pollard’s tequila bottle (which, by the time he passed it to the front rows, was down to a couple of inches). But now, as she came out of the audience toward the end of the set, I felt like the whole last week had been leading up to this – Robyn, disheveled and sweaty, smiling and laughing because she knew that, yes, we were lucky to be in that bar, on this night, seeing Guided by Voices.