Monday, November 8, 2010

Guided by Voices reunion at Terminal 5: 11/7/2010

When Robert Pollard broke up Guided By Voices after 20-odd years of 4-track experimentation, beer guzzling, wacko on-stage rants, and middle-aged scissor-kicking, he said he was interested in seeing how history might contextualize his band. Would GBV be squished into the upper-echelon with their idols The Beatles and The Who? Typically, Pollard never gave Rock & Roll archivists a chance to sit back, catch their breaths, and take a moment to reflect on his history with Dayton’s booziest sons. He never stopped releasing music at a dementedly prolific rate, whether as a solo act or as a member of The Circus Devils or Keene Brothers or The Moping Swans or The Takeovers or Psycho and the Birds. More importantly, he only kept the band broken up for a mere six years before reuniting to help Matador Records celebrate its 20th anniversary and taking the “classic” line-up of the ever-metamorphosing group on a short tour. Ostensibly, that tour came to an end last night. I say “ostensibly” because they just added an extra New Year’s Eve show at Irving Plaza in NYC. But that’s a typical GBV move. The tour is never really over. The night of drinking has never really dried up. The club is never really closed. And GBV— if we’re to consider their one constant member to be the band’s essence— never really broke up.

But, to some fans, they did, indeed, break up, and a lot longer ago than 2004. For the hardcore cultists that favored the group’s cassette-tape recordings, Guided by Voices broke up in 1996 when Pollard shit-canned Tobin Sprout* (guitar-vocals), Mitch Mitchell (guitar), Kevin Fennell (drums), and Greg Demos (bass) after making their final lo-fi freak-out, Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. Pollard then hired Cobra Verde to serve as his back-up band, and he cut Mag Earwig! the first fully polished GBV record (the band’s ‘80s output recorded in proper studios never really sounded that much slicker than the stuff they cut on home 4-track machines in the mid-‘90s). Those lo-fi fans felt just as betrayed as Sprout, Mitchell, and the rest must have when they received their pink slips.

* (See correction in the comments below...sorry, Tobin!)

Personally, I adore Mag Earwig! and the widely reviled Do the Collapse (produced by Ric Ocasek), and all those other “sell out” records that weeded out the fair-weather fans. Yet there is an incomparable magic to those records the guys made in Mitchell’s basement while sucking back Rolling Rocks and indulging in their weirdest whims. Records like Vampire on Titus and Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes sound like they were never meant for public consumption. Like they were just made for the guys’ personal use. They sound like bootlegs, like The Beatles Anthology albums, like the recordings you amateur songwriters out there used to record in your own bedroom on your own Tascam 4-track machine long before digital technology made even home-recording into an act as soulless as watching a feature film on your fucking cell phone. The Guided by Voices I saw last night at Terminal 5 in Manhattan was purely a product of an age before cell phones and Garage Band and MP3s. They were cassettes wound with crinkled tape and smelly basements and old dudes who kicked out Rock & Roll with way more genuine joy than the poseurs who followed them. Songs were as likely to be sloppy messes as they were to be powerful. Mitch Mitchell seemed so happy to be back on stage with the band that he wasted not an opportunity to shout inanities (some with a lack of political correctness that also seemed to creep in from a long-gone era) into his microphone or shred on his guitar in inappropriate place. He personally sabotaged Sprout’s dramatic intro to “Cut-Out Witch” with his overzealous riffing. After the rest of the group left the stage following each encore, Mitchell stuck around to tell the audience how much he loves them. When the band came back out, Pollard slurred his trademark banter with a complete lack of the sort of self-conscious irony that threatened to annihilate Rock & Roll throughout the past twenty-or-so years. Guided by Voices never played Rock & Roll because they thought the idea of a bunch of middle-aged dudes bashing out off-kilter tributes to The Who or King Crimson or Wire was cute or clever. They did it because that’s what they wanted to do more than anything else in the world. And that’s what made last night’s show a transcendent experience despite the raggedness and the flubbed guitar-lines and the poorly laid out, acoustically shitty venue (Terminal 5? Bleck). Robert Pollard really did seem to be thrilled to be back with the guys he played with before he “sold out” (Editor's note: Robert Pollard never sold out). And Mitch Mitchell seemed thrilled to be king for a day.
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