“So, how old are they?” Keith asked as I hunted through my iPod for some of the more obscure early Guided By Voices songs I thought we might hear that night. “Old,” I replied. “Put it this way: When they come out on stage, the first thing you’re going to think is ‘Wow, those guys are old.’ ” Keith laughed as “The Hard Way,” off Same Place the Fly Got Smashed, began to fill the room. “But that’s always been part of their charm,” I continued. “Bob has never looked like he belonged onstage. The fact that some of greatest pop songs ever written came from this guy, who looks like he could be your uncle, make them that much more fun.”
Being the devoted member to the cult of Uncle Bob that I am, I took the responsibility of leading my friend, one of the more dedicated music nerds I know, on a GBV crash course. His knowledge covered the band’s best four albums — Propeller, Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes Under the Stars — which were made (in that order) with the “classic” lineup. The same lineup we’ll be seeing tonight: Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos, and Kevin Fennell. After a few hours of educational listening to the ridiculously extensive GBV catalog, we shut off the music and stood up to leave. “I can’t believe he wrote all those songs,” Keith said.
Because of my paranoia/excitement, we bought the first tickets sold (literally numbers 1 and 2) months ago when sales first opened. Accordingly, we now walked to Philly’s Trocadero to be among the first to wait in line, trying to set ourselves up for a spot at the front of the stage. “I do not give a shit about my dignity; I will sprint if I have to,” I informed my pal. After all, this was GBV’s penultimate tour date and perhaps their penultimate gig ever. Not being able to see them before their farewell gig on Dec. 31, 2004, I was leaving nothing to chance.
Outside the club, there were many people trying to find tickets. Asking around next to us in line were two kids from Toronto. It was an 8-hour bus ride, they only had one ticket for the two of them, they were both 19 at a 21-and-up show, and they had nowhere to sleep until their bus left at 9 the next morning. Suddenly I considered myself a lot less hardcore. The four of us chatted as the line grew. A realization led me to interrupt the conversation, “Oh shit! I forgot I have to write a review of this show!” A few jokes at my expense later, our friends from the Great White North had to leave us to scavenge for their needed ticket.
The rush was not as desperate as I expected when the doors opened, and soon we parked in front of the stage, nestled between Bob and Toby’s mic stands. The ubiquitous neon sign bearing the refrain from “A Salty Salute” hung above the drum kit, yet to be lit: “The club is open.” The first few chants of “GBV! GBV!” rang out as people slowly filled the room. Blitzen Trapper went on soon after we were let in, and while the crowd enjoyed the songs, everyone’s anxious eyes fixed upon the unlit sign, anticipating the main event.
The band soon left and the GBV chants ebbed and flowed over the house music as the roadies reset the stage. Laughs and hoots resounded when the token cooler of beer was brought out and placed next to the drums. Once set, the stage stayed empty for what seemed an eternity. Then, at last, we erupted in delirious cheers as the sign’s blue-and-orange light blazed through the blackness. The club was open.
Ohio’s favorite sons climbed the steps stage-right and emerged from a cloud of cigarette smoke to greet us. Demos sported his (in)famous red-white-and-blue-striped pants, a frilly tuxedo shirt, and a vest. Mitchell featured an anarchy-symbol T-shirt and ever-present cigarette. Sprout’s khakis and polo shirt made him resemble your father’s golfing buddy. Pollard brought up the rear with silver hair haloed by the lights and a bottle of Jose Cuervo, three-quarters full, clenched in his fist.
Keith turned to yell in my ear and fulfill my prediction: “Wow, they are old.” I nodded and shouted back, “Yeah, but it doesn’t matter.” The band quickly confirmed my statement, wasting no time to blast into “Pimple Zoo,” the 40-second chorus-bridge-chorus classic from Alien Lanes. The crowd matched Pollard’s every note, shouting as he sang – “Sometimes I get the feeling that you don’t want me around!” The rhythmically playful Grand Hour cut “Break Even” followed, then the bizarre favorite “Matter Eater Lad.” The audience continued its enthusiastic singing, seemingly everyone knowing all the lyrics to even these lesser-known EP tracks. “Yeah, he’s mad! He’s Matter Eater Lad!”
The Fading Captain did not appear to be fading at all as he preened for his fan-boys and -girls and did his usual hop-on-one-foot dance. The jumps and microphone twirling were just as frequent and crisp. His trademark head-level kicks on cymbal crashes were just as high, if not higher, as Bob appeared to have lost a little weight since the early 2000s.
Keith tapped my shoulder and pointed behind us during a break between songs. “Check it out! They made it in!” I turned to see both our Canadian friends from the line. We smiled at each other and I gave them a nod of congratulations. I’m not sure what they had to do for that second ticket; I just hope it didn’t involve a nearby dark alley.
The already buzzing crowd exploded as fan favorites “Tractor Rape Chain” and “Cut-Out Witch” came next. The chorus to “Tractor Rape Chain” was a full-throat sing-along, with us handily matching Pollard’s PA in volume. The pregnant pause after the opening section of “Cut-Out Witch” was dutifully punctuated by the crowd screaming “Two! Three! Four!” in perfect unison before the guitars and drums kicked back to speed. I daydreamed of doing that for years. In my excitement at seizing the moment, my yelps may have weirded out some nearby fans, but I didn’t care.
Pollard and Sprout were a little out-of-sync at the start of the softer “Bright Paper Werewolves,” with Bob singing about a beat too fast. It was not clear whether the frequent belts of tequila and beer were to blame, or if he just misheard the chords. However, the duo quickly righted the ship in time for the tune’s wonderful coda.
Sprout took his turn on vocals for “A Good Flying Bird,” as Bob sat back on the drum stand and covered the harmonies, capitalizing on the respite by replenishing himself with more Miller Lite. This routine was repeated for most of Sprout’s songs, such as “Gleemer” and “Awful Bliss.” Following the latter, Pollard rose to join him for the touching Propeller stand-out “14 Cheerleader Coldfront.” Most GBV fans bemoan the band’s loss of Toby and the other “classic lineup” members during 1996. They maintain that, while the post-’96 albums are good, nothing compares to when Pollard and Sprout were pushing each other. Whatever caused the falling-out appears to be water under the bridge at this point. Seeing the two creative forces together again, singing their sweetest co-penned song, provided one of the evening’s most poignant moments.
The bass-driven “Lethargy” and “Large-Hearted Boy” re-energized the audience and gave Demos a chance to flaunt and pose. The floor was particularly raucous, bordering on mosh-pit levels. Everyone smooshed together, pitching and heaving, with a sea of fists pumping in the air. Anything with a good, steady beat inspired people to hop up and down. Being packed as we were, songs such as “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” “Closer You Are,” “Quality of Armor,” and especially “Game of Pricks” and “Exit Flagger,” turned us into a giant, sweaty dry-hump party.
The set closed with a trio of popular tracks: the rumbling “Motor Away,” the anthemic “A Salty Salute,” and the jangle-pop classic “Echos Myron.” Pollard milked the Philly crowd before the song, pointing out that the tune contained a nod to their city: “Echos Myron, like a siren, with endurance like the Liberty Bell.” He went on to thank the city, saying Philly and New York were the first big cities to “accept GBV into your hearts.” Keith, myself, and the crowd showed our appreciation on another particularly appropriate line in the song, shouting, “We’re finally here and shit yeah it’s cool!”
The five members laid down their instruments and, considering the amount of alcohol consumed, headed off for what had to be a massive pee break. Both band and crowd knew there would be compulsory encores, the “good nights” and “thank-yous” nothing more than theater. The GBV chants began just as soon as they stepped off stage. The crew re-emerged later, minus Pollard, and started back up with Mitchell taking over vocal duties for “Postal Blowfish.” Pollard then returned from his extended break, his shirt soaked through with sweat. The lesser-known “Hey Aardvark” and “Some Drilling Implied” sandwiched Bee Thousand favorite “Smothered in Hugs,” as the crowd tried to soak up the dwindling time.
The band made another exit, but the neon sign still shone. Minutes of cheering were rewarded again, and the fivesome returned. Another track from the more obscure side of the catalog, “Dodging Invisible Rays,” restarted the party. The well-known “My Son Cool” followed, its thunderous first chord bursting through the amps as Pollard yelled the opening lines, “Deciiiiide now!” Next up was “Don’t Stop Now,” the song Pollard fondly refers to as “the ballad of Guided By Voices.” It’s a great song, and it was a great rendition, but I was worried. When GBV said farewell in 2004, it was the last song they played. Would it mark the end here, too? The audience willfully ignored this possibility, again singing every word, particularly loud at the lines “We pulled into Economy Island, King Shit and the Golden Boys.”
Afterward, the band said good night for the third time. Shaking hands with fans on his way off-stage, Mitchell heard the guy next to me ask for a beer. He promptly returned to the cooler then handed the fan a beer. Jealous fans nearby then heard Mitchell’s simple explanation for the gift: “He asked.” The stage was empty again, but now there was desperation. We thought we might have to work hard for another encore. The GBV chants rose again. We made noise. As much as we could. The sign still burned. Eventually, the band returned to the cheers of their happily exhausted fans. Pollard’s bottle of tequila was now half-empty, and as he returned to his post he handed the bottle to a fan, saying “Here, pass that around.” It was gone in less than a minute. The guy next to me who got the beer screamed for “Johnny Appleseed,” and as luck would have it, the song began. Pollard went up an octave to exclaim “I’m first lieutenant to you, I am Johnny Appleseed!” and the crowd swayed contentedly to the cooed refrain “Sooo cherry.” Next was the two-and-a-half-minute tour-de-force “Weed King.”
The serene start belies the middle section’s Bolero-esque build to a bombastic finish. Pollard plays it beautifully, bellowing as the fireworks begin, “And watch colored lights shine down, dancing ‘round the lady’s face!” We summoned up what little energy we had left to sing and pump our fists. The song drew to a close and the band shook hands with the crowd again as they made their triumphant retreat. Just as before, we were determined not to let it end.
We stomped feet and clapped hands. We whistled and hollered. Keith and I pounded our hands on the stage. Was a fourth possible? … Then the simultaneous groan of the 1,200-or-so present filled the air. The sign was extinguished.
As the dazed crowd slowly dispersed, I looked at Keith, exhausted. “I’m covered in sweat and I don’t think any of it is mine.” Our Canadian friends spied us and shuffled over, clothes drenched and smiling wide. “How the hell are you going to review that?” they asked.
I shook my head and gave a tired laugh, “I don’t know.”
1. Pimple Zoo
2. Break Even
3. Matter Eater Lad
4. Tractor Rape Chain
5. Cut-Out Witch
6. Shocker in Gloomtown
7. Bright Paper Werewolves
8. Buzzards and Dreadful Crows
9. A Good Flying Bird
10. Striped White Jets
11. Exit Flagger
12. Closer You Are
13. My Valuable Hunting Knife
14. Awful Bliss
15. 14 Cheerleader Coldfront
17. Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy
18. My Impression Now
19. Hot Freaks
20. Watch Me Jumpstart
21. Gold Star for Robot Boy
22. Gleemer (The Deeds of Fertile Jim)
23. The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory
24. Game of Pricks
25. I Am A Scientist
26. Queen of Cans and Jars
27. Quality of Armor
28. Motor Away
29. A Salty Salute
30. Echos Myron
1. Postal Blowfish
2. Hey Aardvark
3. Smothered in Hugs
4. Some Drilling Implied
1. Dodging Invisible Rays
2. My Son Cool
3. Don’t Stop Now
1. Johnny Appleseed
2. Weed King