Guided By Voices: 40th Anniversary Celebration [Concert Review]

Guided By Voices – 40th Anniversary Celebration; Dayton Masonic Center; Dayton, Ohio; September 1 & 2, 2023. With Special Guests: Dinosaur Jr., Built To Spill, Heartless Bastards, Wednesday, and Kiwi Jr.

Night One

It’s worth acknowledging right at the top, that the very existence of the band Guided By Voices – now 40 years into it’s storied music career – is beyond simple explanation. As Rob Pollard suggested several time during the band’s sprawling 2 hour display of the breadth and depth of his creative life, GBV has produced 120 albums in four decades, “that’s 4000 songs, how do you decide which ones to play in a 90 minute set?” To which many in the sold-out crowd shouted back at him, “play them all.”

But still, little explains the dynamic sense of community and fan devotion created around this band and its huge catalog of music, apart from the unique creative drive that makes Pollard singularly productive against all the odds. It’s his unique vision of the world, that feels innocent yet not naïve, informed but unaffected, and his unencumbered imagination that comes up with songs like “Cut-Out Witch,” “Dance of the Gurus,” “The Gold Heart Mountain Queen Directory,” “Jane of the Waking Universe,” and “I Am a Scientist,” all of which were brought out to play on Friday night.

In some ways, the one-time schoolteacher is an unlikely rock star. Kind of a unique cross between Roger Daltry’s swagger and the befuzzled mad scientist Doc Brown from “Back to the Future,” and a rebellious, horny teenager thrown in just to keep things interesting. At 65 years of age and in great voice on Friday night, the singer can be a bit pitchy, as heard clearly on the band’s 2018 live concert album, Ogre’s Trumpet, and 2020: Live from Dayton, OH. But nobody is really complaining, as throughout the night his fans eagerly poured praise on the singer, shouting back at him his own lyrics on many of their favorite anthem rants.

And, as Pollard pointed out, he’s able to do all that he’s accomplished thanks to the current batch of musicians that provide punchy rhythms and soaring guitar solos, to the ideas pulling out of the ether and his feverishly active mind. Recalling the words from Neil Young, Pollard thanked his band, who allow him to “Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World.” He called out former long-time guitarist Tobin Sprout but didn’t go on to name all the players who’d worn the cloak of GBV throughout the last 40 years, which would have been almost as many musicians as the 38 songs that made it on to the first night of the celebration’s setlist. The current band—made up of guitarists
Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr., drummer Kevin March, and Mark Shue—has been together since 2016. Pollard joked that these guys keep him rockin’ in the free world by helping him up the stairs, acknowledging that they are all younger than he, especially his bassist: “this is funny, Mark’s 40th birthday is Sunday. He came out of the placenta, and joined Guided By Voices, he’s been in the band for his entire life.”

As for this fine collection of musicians, backing Pollard across the evening’s historic journey across 40 year’s worth of song-writing and rock history in what is affectionately described as the Gem City. Which is another thing worth exploring, the role of a small urban city in the backing of this internationally known rock band, what kept Pollard here an not off to L.A. or NYC like so many other mid-American rock bands (I’m looking at you, The Hold Steady and The National). While Ohio has gotten a lot of attention for its funk and R&B contributions, but Black Keys may have got its start in Akron, but now live and record in Nashville mostly. Dayton has Kim Deal of The Pixies and Breeders, and, yes, Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices.

But yes, that band… they really do rock, they’re as solid a rock combo as you’ll ever experience. You don’t play nearly 40 songs in two hours with a lot of goofing around, and Pollard gets down to business and the band is there, attentive and ready to do his bidding. “2, 3, 4, hit it,” is the most consistent thing Pollard said all night, often announcing the name of the next song, while the guitarists’ amps and drummer’s cymbals were still echoing the closing notes of the sudden ending of the previous number, and counting off the next track on the extensive setlist.

There were plenty of great rock band moments on Friday night, Gillard delivering most of the solos and some of the more articulate guitar runs, but Bare Jr.’s contributions on rhythm were integral to the song’s foundations, and the rock-solid rhythm section were nothing other than relentless. March propelling the songs forward with driving force and subtlety when called for, and the appropriate amount of cowbell I might add, meanwhile bassist Shue not only provides a solid ground floor, but was an inspiration with his widespread stance still impressive nearly 2 hours from the show’s start. Talk about rock star moves. And then there’s the wise professor himself, white hair shining in the stage lights, skipping around from time to time, hopping up and down, offering the occasional high kick, adding air guitar and drum punctuation to his songs, at times spinning the mic cord like Daltrey of the Who, often gesturing to the crowd as if trying to get his teacherly point across.

But the real connection between the fans and Pollard was exhibited routinely throughout the night, as the crowd shouted back his lyrics to him, especially the most strident rants. It was evident early on with “My Impression Now,” a song that dates back to ’94, but more so on the next song, “Cut-Out Witch” (’96), with the refrain: “Do you think she can change your life?” What passes for optimism for Pollard came through on “Everybody Thinks I’m a Rain Cloud (When I’m Not Looking):” “Everyday it’s another world and every change of tomorrow/Hungover and hungry to fix it, a miracle cure for my sorrow/With pillows of self-esteem, alone in a satellite dream/Where I can’t forget about a world where every beam I choose/Is shining alone on you, shining alone on you, yeah.”
Throughout the night, Pollard shared a few insights into the history of his creative life and the long history of his band, mentioning that the early self-financed albums were often described as “vanity projects,” because it was seen as vain to make and produce your own creative work, he asked the crowd rhetorically. Perhaps a bit conscious of advancing age, he recalled an internet meme with photos of the Stones’ Mick Jagger beside Mitch McConnell, pointing out that the octogenarian rocker is 80, while the Senator is 81, adding the punchline “never underestimate a life of “sex, drugs, and rock & roll.”

Throughout the night, Pollard’s wide ranging musical interests were on full display. In “Alex Bell,” a reference to the Dayton roadway through the city’s southside suburbs, he dabbled with progressive rock time changes. He slowed things down to offer a chance for a “slow dance,” with “Queen of Spaces,” which featured a lovely, gently guitar opening form Gillard, but then punched things back into overdrive with the big riff rocker, “Away.” Later in the night, they paused the music while Shue and Pollard read the lyrics of “Razor Bug.” But things took a turn later in the set, most notably with “The Rally Boys,” from the band’s 2019 mega-release, Zeppelin Over China, with it’s memorable chant: “You won’t catch the Rally Boys/The cyclone alley boys/The grand finale boys.”

“Teenage FBI” followed, Pollard noting that the band’s 1999 album, Do the Collapse, was produced by The Cars’ Rick Ocasek, complaining that some record company genius had insisted that they add the parenthetical (Someone Tell My Why), when it went out as a single. Following the Cars’ sounding track came “Game of Pricks” followed by “Non-Absorbing,” with the band starting the final song of their supposedly 90 minute set, “I Am a Scientist,” at midnight.

After a 5 minute break the encores opened with a presentation from Pollard’s old label, Matador Records, naming him the “Most Valuable Lead Singer” of the last 40 years, which Pollard graciously accepted along with hugs from some of those folk who’d helped release some of his earlier albums. Then, ready to return back to business, he pointed out “they gave me an old bowling trophy.” Then quickly counted down “Time Without Looking,” with its memorable line: “She placed a silver glove on the headrest/I played my best at the rain parade,” and another example of cowbell balanced by the ringing bell of his cymbal from drummer March, a song with a strong classic rock and Beatles vibe in Pollard’s melody.

“I Am a Tree” was next, which is a Doug Gillard penned classic, followed by “Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft,” a song from ’06 and one of Pollard’s brief solo periods. Then “Shocker in Gloomtown” led directly into “Glad Girls,” a song Pollard had demoed as early as 1994, but showed up as a finished song on the 2001 release, Isolation Drills, with its all too familiar sing-along chant, which the crowd took full advantage of: “Hey, glad girls only want to get you high/And they’re alright, and they’re alright.” Then it was good night, with the promise of another night to follow, as “the club is open” all weekend.

Grunge-masters, Dinosaur Jr. dominated the stage before Guided By Voices arrived, with guitarists J Mascis’ tall 3 Marshall amp stacks dominating stage right, as his guitar sound had the same impact on the band’s sound throughout their one-hour 12 song set. With the vocals almost entirely lost in the mix, Mascis’ rock star worthy guitar leads ruled, while the propulsive power drumming of Murph, and Lou Barlow’s bass kept things grounded. The played four tracks from their 1987 album, You’re Living All Over Me: The set opening “The Lung,” “Kracked,” “Sludgefest” and “Little Fury Things.” Barlow moved to guitar to play and sing “Garden,’ and added vocals throughout, but again it was Mascis’ solos, impressively loud as they were, that demanded the most attention. Late in their set they did a cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” but you’d have to have anticipated it for the song’s melody and lyrics to ring a bell of recognition, and they ended with a lengthy jam, and longer than most soloing section on “Gargoyle.”

The evening’s opener, Toronto-based Kiwi Jr. made a solid introduction during their 9 song, 30 min. set, drawing strongly on their two Sub Pop releases since signing with the label in 2021, Cooler Returns, which came out that year, and their ’22 release, Chopper. The quartet centers strongly around the jangly pop/rock guitar songs of singer Jeremy Gaudet, who also added some of the guitar solos, when guitarist Brian Murphy had set aside his Rickenbacker to add simple melodic keyboard synth lines to the tracks. The overall feel reminded me of The Shins, catchy melodies, smart lyrics about “timeless traditions, like insurance fraud.” Gaudet did take a moment to explain the night’s opener theme, the “Jr.” in his band’s name. When they showed up to their first gig, the club owner told them there was already a punk band with the name Kiwi, so thinking of Dinosaur Jr. they added the additional word. “No one expected,” he demurred, “that seven years later we’d be on stage playing and Dinosaur Jr. would be backstage anxiously demanding an explanation.”

Night Two

It has to be said, that the 40th Anniversary weekend celebration of Guided By Voices was a huge event in the smaller urban community of Dayton, OH. Many fans treated the two-evening event like a spiritual pilgrimage, posting selfies at landmarks mentioned in some of Robert Pollard’s songs, checking out the band’s concrete salute in the Dayton Walk of Fame, while locals wondered about all the attention our little slice of everyday life was getting so much attention, never having thought about taking a photo of the Island Park Pavilion or the street sign for Titus Ave.

And after the triumphant first night, online and casual debates began about the second night’s setlist—would it be entirely different, how many of the crowd favorites would show up in the second show, what from the band’s vast catalog of material would we hear the second time around, what musical nuggets would the band unearth for this very special occasion? Like the night before, the band entered from stage left quietly and without announcement—starting promptly at 10:45 pm, fifteen minutes later than Friday, no doubt to accommodate the 3 opening acts—and guitarist Doug Gillard played the opening riffs of the familiar “Dance of the Gurus,” Pollard clapping at first to engage the crowd, then offering one of the evening’s high kicks, his foot up in the air equal to his head, as if to say I may be the oldest person on stage, but I’ve still got it.

And at the same fast pace of the night before, the band moved on to “A Salty Salute,” with its statement of solidarity with recent DUI recipients forced to take the bus to the lake, with the promise that when you arrive, “the club is open.” Which led immediately into one of Guided By Voices’ unofficial, woulda/coulda/shoulda been a radio airplay hit, “The Rally Boys,” which was the kick-off point on the previous night for the final rollercoaster ride to the end of the set proper. And as Pollard explained later in the evening, the band has an ongoing debate about which songs are the required staples, that they need to play at every show, and what from the band’s 120 albums and 4000 songs recorded over four decades should me added to the evening’s playlist. That said, there was quite a bit of overlap on the two evening’s playlist, which some folk attended both shows felt like a missed opportunity to lift up other, perhaps more obscure favorites, while others no doubt need, want, demand to hear obvious fan favorites like “Tractor Rape Chain,” “The Goldenheart Mountaintop Queen Directory,” “Motor Away,” and “I Am a Scientist,” and honestly another half dozen or more every time they hit the stage. So, as in all fan-bases, there exists some disagreement, but on both nights on this special weekend everybody I saw leaving the shows were quite happy for this gathering of the mutual appreciation society that is the Guided By Voices community.

But for those keeping score—and we know some of you are—I have on the authority of someone much more analytical and good with numbers that 63% of Friday night’s setlist made it back into the band’s 38 song performance during Saturday night’s set. We once again received a 5 song encore, beginning with another of those highly anticipated crowd favorites, “Glad Girls.” Other early standouts on Saturday night were the Stonesy sounding “Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking), and one that feels more like a march at the start, and has a Celtic rock feel, from the 2002 album, Universal Truths and Cycles, “Back to the Lake,” that was returned to the band’s live sets with the arrival of Gillard on the scene. While Pollard was a lot less chatty on Saturday night, he acknowledged that the enthusiastic, heartfelt response of his fans, saying “it makes an old man happy,” as he offered thanks to the opening bands for both nights and the great help the band got from “this splendid venue.”

The plodding drama of “Volcano” along with the big, echoing power chords of “Meet the Star,” bring the intensity of the full band to the fore—guitarist Bobby Bare Jr. who seemed to dance like a dervish throughout the night, next to bassist Mark Shue with his endless repertoire of rock star moves, his legs spread one minute, lifting his instrument high in the air the next, drummer Kevin March, who muscular playing seems uniquely attuned to the melodic structure of Pollard’s songs, always playing with the right amount of cymbal splashes, while guitar scientist Gillard mixes classic rock guitar songs in ways that are both reliable, yet versatile, always lifting the song’s momentum at just the right moment.

“Released Into Dementia,” “Tractor Rape Chain,” and “Alex Bell” made return appearances from the previous evening, “Pockets” felt new and exciting, followed by the big drum punch of “My Valuable Hunting Knife,” and another with a bit of a Stones’ feel, “Mr. Child,” with Pollard’s enthusiastic shouts of “hey, hey, hey, hey.” After “Cut-Out Witch” and “Mountaintop…” Pollard made the mistake of counting off “My Impression Now,” one of the previous night’s highlights. Then in a pure, funny move, he stopped the song, and announced to the world, “I fucked up,” but arguing that “We are a professional band, and I’m not supposed to count that one off.” And then, after the song, Pollard explained that this particular song had gone through a variety of iterations in the demo stage before finally coming together as a completed whole, which Pollard said had “plenty of fuck ups,” then praised his drummer who “plays all the fuckups” correctly, as recorded.

“Here’s a couple of great fucking songs,” announced Pollard at the start of “Boomerang,” followed by “Focus on the Flock” and “Yours to Keep.” “Echos Myron,” another addition, brought a big response from the crowd, who responded with a big vocal shout out back to Pollard, “Myron’s like a siren with endurance/like the Liberty Bell/who tells you of the dreamers, but he’s cracked up like the road/And he’d like to lift us up but we’re a heavy load.” Perhaps one of the many descriptions, where Pollard tapes the imagination and feelings of man of his band’s fans. And that sense of belonging extended through “Instinct Dwelling.”

In the lateness of the hour, things turned toward that build to a satisfying climax with the big band build up of “Game of Pricks,” followed by the sing-along with “The Best of Jill Hives,” “I Am a Scientist” and “Motor Away” ending the show proper, the crowd chanting along all the way to the end at 12:20 am. With a much shorter pause, the band quickly returned to do what they promised the “Glad Girls,” announcing “I only want to get you high.” The fast punchy encore moved on to “Your Name Is Wild,” “I Am a Tree,” and “The Official Ironman Rally Song.” Then, in Pollard’s now standing promise, the evening closed without much aplomb, leaving the crowd with the final ringing chords of “Don’t Stop Now,” a declaration Guided By Voices backs up with the announcement of two more “stellar” albums scheduled for release.

Special guest Built to Spill, currently a trio centered around the band’s original member and guitarist and singer/songwriter Doug Martsch, ably supported by the female rhythm section of bassist Melanie Radford and drummer Teresa Esguerra, who both joined in 2019. While the band’s set went all the way back to a couple songs each from albums recorded in the 90’s, they also played two from last year’s well-received album, When the Wind Forgets Your Name. Standing middle stage, with his foot pedals on the floor, and as a small table to access his guitar effects, Martsch’s focus centered around his lovely, often impeccable guitar sound, while the band’s hour long 11-song set was drenched with his warm, melodic guitar playing, occasionally mixing in traditional surf guitar tones, with a wide of array of satisfying, musically rich solos.

Heartless Bastards, led by former Daytonian Erika Wennerstorm, was a natural fit to the bill due to her geographical relevance, but of the 5 other opening acts, perhaps the least connected to the kind of indie rock aesthetic that Guided By Voices thrives in. Still the audience was patient with the long acoustic guitar folk/rock which Wennerstorm began for “Revolution” at the beginning of the band’s 8 song set. But the full band, with two guitarists, a solid bassist and a very dramatic drummer, rose to the occasion mixing their more commercial adult contemporary sound with enough rock energy to sustain interest in her pretty brief set. She invited Built to Spill’s Radford to come sing a verse of their set closing “The Mountain,” while Martsch joined in on the extended guitar solos with the rest of the band.

The early opener, Wednesday, led by singer/guitarist Karly Hartzman, dominated their quick half hour set with a sampler from their new album, Rat Saw God, drawing 5 of the 7 songs they played from the April release. Full of urgency, a bit or political and personal angst and woe, Hartzman sang softly at times, but was quick with a full bodied scream and shout when the song’s emotions required the necessary emphasis. A moody blend of countrified Americana (pedal steel and all), with dense shrouds of guitar noise reminiscent of shoe-gaze bands, plus strong melodies and a take no prisoners punk vibe left me, and many in the crowd, hungry for more of this young band. The lovely guitar sounds that bounced off the pedal steel, came from band member MJ Lenderman, who also performs as a solo artist.

Brian Q. Newcomb

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