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Guided By Voices: An Electrifying Conclusion?
Live Review: GBV at TLA, Philadelphia PA, 9/10/04

by dave heaton

When you've seen your favorite band play live more than 20 times, one of two things begins to happen: either you lose your critical abilities or they're heightened. Either you become one of those super-fans to whom the band can do no wrong or you become hyper-critical of each detail of the performance, not to mention jaded and hard to impress. Both of these reactions are multiplied in intensity when it's a band you're really obsessed with, when not only have you seen them over 20 times, but you've experienced another hundred of their shows through bootleg cassettes, Cds and videotapes. If you're not careful, this kind of devotion can lead to extremes of behavior. I'm reminded of the Grateful Dead fans sitting next to me when I won free tickets to the Further Festival...they bided the time between acts by playing a "guess the setlist" game, where one of them would give the date and venue of a Grateful Dead concert, and the others would guess what songs they played, and (this is important) in what order...

Guided by Voices have a league of unbelievably devoted fans, which means there's also a corresponding number of disappointed ex-fans and reformed obsessives. I'd probably still be put in the first category of super-fans, yet when it comes to their live show, and the two things that happen after you've seen a band a crazy number of times, I'm getting always closer to jaded, much further away from blind devotion.

I say this so you know where I'm coming from and take what I say with a grain of salt. I am not a fresh observer of GBV, if there is such a thing at this point. In the studio, I think Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices continue to make some of the most creative and emotional rock music around (see my Pop Matters review of their great new album Half Smiles of the Decomposed), but in concert it's another story. Live Guided by Voices can still deliver powerful, energizing, heart-stopping performances, but just as often their shows meander and plod, with no sense of pacing at all, and way too much of Bob Pollard's "I can still rock" shtick, whether it takes the form of him rambling about why they deserve more attention than fill-in-the-blank new band or him uncreatively ad-libbing over guitar solos and instrumental passages.

The Philadelphia stop on Guided by Voices' final tour (the "Electrifying Conclusion" tour) had plenty of both sides of the band. They opened with an absolutely stunning version of Mag Earwhig's "Sad If I Lost It" which could restore any one's faith in the vitality of rock music - as would their renditions of the grand, weird anthems off Half Smiles of the Decomposed, a killer version of The Grand Hour's "Shocker in Gloomtown," surprisingly faithful renditions of the 1989 Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalia tracks "Chief Barrel Belly" and "Navigating Flood Regions," and Doug Gillard's on-fire guitar playing through pretty much the whole set. Other shining moments included Pollard and bassist Chris Slusarenko alone on stage doing the lovely ballads "Trap Soul Door" and "Drinker's Peace," and a fine rendition of "Redmen and Their Wives." Yet despite a handful of really great moments, I was left feeling like I've felt upon leaving the last few GBV shows that I saw: a bit blah.

It's been a long time since I got really excited at the start of a GBV show and felt that way through to the end. But this used to happen just about every time. And I'm not exactly sure what's changed. I can go through the problems with their performance in Philadelphia on Friday night: there were too many songs (especially b-sides and EP tracks) that sound great on record but live came off as slow and aimless ("Beg for a Wheelbarrow," "Harrison Adams", "Mascara Snakes"); guitarist Nate Farley seemed completely off-track musically the whole show, and acted like he was in dire need of the crowd's attention by running, yelling, and basically playing the fool; Pollard sang way too many unnecessary ad-lib vocals over instrumental breaks (witness the hideous "rock is in my blood" spiel that threatened to ruin the spectacular "Secret Star"). But Guided by Voices has probably never put on a technically perfect performance - they've always been about getting up there sloppy drunk and running through a bunch of songs. Part of the difference now, though, is that they've lost the ability to run through songs - their sense for how to structure a show so that energy is built and maintained seems to be completely gone. I realize that's a hard thing to do when you play three-plus hours, but there once was a time when they could play that long without ever getting boring, when they'd play a three-hour set and you'd actually want them to play longer.

Maybe my disappointment is just what happens when you stick with a band for a long time. Yet I imagine there to be fans of say, Bruce Springsteen who still get the same kick from his shows that they got in 1975 - are there fans like that? And are they reasonable fans or have they just been deluded into blindly loving everything the Boss does? Or maybe they've become creatures of habit, who became superfans and now feel like that's who they are, like changing would be changing who they are. I don't know. But I do know that the end of Guided by Voices as a touring entity doesn't exactly make me sad, yet I feel sad saying that, because over the years I've seen (and heard) them deliver so many unstoppable performances. Some part of me, though, feels like there's bound to be a breaking point, a point where you question how much you will overlook just because they're one of your favorite bands. Friday night's show offered a variety of "how much can you take?" litmus tests, starting before the band came on stage. There was a slide show that intercut photos from GBV's history with new-agey scenes of birds and waterfalls, to a Muzak version of Half Smile's "Windows of My World." This is the sort of thing super-fans are supposed to eat up; I thought it was hilarious for about 5 seconds, and then quickly became self-indulgent. Would I have liked this more if I'd only seen them play 15 times? If I only had 5 bootleg tapes of their shows instead of over 80? I don't know...but if they'd followed the slide show with a "guess the setlist" trivia quiz, I might have walked out the door before they came on stage, and never looked back.

Issue 26, September 2004

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