Sunday, October 17, 2010

Smothered in hugs

There's a pretty good chance that I've seen Guided By Voices in concert more than any other band. The indie rock legends hail from Dayton, which is why they were on my radar fairly early on despite the fact that I no longer lived in the area.

Their story was a good one. Lead singer and main songwriter Robert Pollard was an elementary school teacher, and with members in their late 30s when the band broke on the underground scene, they were already "old". They arrived as alternative rock, whatever that is, was flourishing and carved out a small but passionate fan base that obsessed over the unbelievably prolific group's releases on a LISTSERV.

I was in college when I first saw GBV. A friend and I drove back to Dayton in the fall of 1994 to see them playing at a place being run as a dinner theater. It was a pretty surreal experience. We both got to meet Pollard and have him sign our purchases. Kim Deal of The Breeders, a local band (sort of) that was hot on the national scene, was in attendance and went on stage to sing on a couple songs. I'd never been to anything quite like this, or heard anything as catchy and noisy, so of course I was hooked. Local pride didn't hurt either.

So I was in on the ground floor, more or less. The so-called classic line-up played together from 1993 to 1996, and I saw them quite a bit, not the least of which was due to Columbus being a regular place where they performed. They were a terrific live band whose short songs were packed into epic concerts, at least when they weren't too drunk. (Their capacity for consuming alcohol was also part of their legend.)

When it was announced that this iteration of GBV would be reuniting and doing a short tour, there was no question I had to see them play. I wasn't alone. For a group whose name would draw blank looks from most people, this was a hot ticket. A local alt-weekly called it one of the most anticipated concerts of the year--it sold out right away--and tickets boasted asking prices of 2.5 to 6 times face value from online sellers.

Could any concert live up to that level of anticipation and nostalgia? In this instance, it did. Reports from some of the first shows on the tour claimed that the reunited GBV's playing was uneven. Whether it was having some time to get it together or extra focus with virtually a hometown crowd, these five guys came out and crushed it. Pollard, now in his 50s, still did his scissor kicks. Bassist Greg Demos strutted around the stage like a maniac with a purpose. Mitch Mitchell threw in some windmill guitar moves. Tobin Sprout's softer songs were nice counterpoint to the rockers, although his were beefed up more than I remember. If anything, they may have been tighter than back in their heyday.

The main thing that stood out is how many great songs this band produced. (And did they ever write songs. They've put out three box sets, each with 100 unreleased songs.) This was an audience of hardcore fans, so everything was already going to be greeted as a smash hit. Nevertheless, the hour forty-five minute concert was like a long greatest hits show, even if a couple rarer tracks made it into the mix. Welcome to one knockout punch after another.

I don't know if it was because I was close to the stage at the front of a deep room or the intensity that the band stirred up (or a combination), but this was as physical of a audience experience I've had. Packed shoulder to shoulder and front to back, it's sort of a miracle that a pumping fist or slamming head didn't connect with my face. At times there was a fair amount of pushing. I made sure to sharpen my elbows and have them pointed out to defend myself from the people bouncing off other attendees like golf balls ricocheting off a racquetball court's walls. I can't say that I enjoyed this aspect of the concert, but it definitely fed an energy into the room that enhanced the evening. I just could have done without some of the aggressors.

Shoving aside, I couldn't have asked for a better trip back with one of my all-time favorite bands and one that led me to a lot of music that I otherwise never would have come to hear. I imagine the band members will be too old to do something like this again in ten or fifteen years, and I don't know that I'd want to be trapped in the pit again with those years on me. If this was goodbye, what a way to go.

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