“Let’s do some rock!”
A beaming Bob Pollard had just sauntered onstage in his Fast & Bulbous T-shirt and practically curtsied to his audience. This was the first of two concerts celebrating the 40th anniversary of Guided By Voices, the prolific, poppy, deeply idiosyncratic rock band Pollard has spent most of his life heading up. Openers Kiwi Jr. and Dinosaur Jr. (funny stuff from team GBV) had both wrapped up their sets. It was 10:30PM on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, and the club was open.
Technically we were in a large auditorium/theater situation at the Dayton Masonic Center — not a space most people would mistake for a rock club, though the GA standing room up front provided a semblance of that kind of intimacy. But in GBV’s case “the club” could just as easily refer to a fan community that makes the word fervent feel too tame. As someone who was also established in Ohio in 1983 (or maybe I should say that’s when I “popped out of the placenta,” as Pollard described the 1983 birth of bassist Mark Shue), who shares some mutual friends and acquaintances with Pollard, who has always felt a warm semi-local pride for the GBV institution, who felt tingles down my spine at least five or six times Friday night, I was still probably among the least passionate Guided By Voices supporters on location.
This was a one-weekend Eras Tour for greying Midwestern indie rock fans. Many, many of us made the pilgrimage from around the state. One Dayton native I know flew back from Boca Raton for the occasion and talked at length about how much better he likes the Buckeye State compared to Florida. People with no direct connection to Ohio beyond their love for this band traveled from far and wide, including one friend from Minnesota who turned the gigs into a reunion with his lifelong friends. You know the unwritten rule about not wearing the T-shirt of the band you’re seeing in concert? It very much did not apply at these shows. For every Hold Steady or Drive-By Truckers shirt there were at least a dozen GBV tees. The beer lines were predictably long.
They sounded amazing. He sounded amazing. That’s what stood out to me the most: Forty years in, the current incarnation of Guided By Voices — Pollard on vocals plus Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr. on guitar, Kevin March on drums, and Shue on bass — just rocks so hard. The GBV live experience has always been different from the records, especially the lo-fi records, which famously tested the endurance of less adventurous listeners in the ’90s. But man, Friday night each tune was robust and muscular in a way that justified Pollard continuing to whip around his microphone like Roger Daltrey.
I don’t know if it has anything to do with the absence of the beverage cooler GBV used to keep on stage — I’ll never forget the sight of a gang of drinking buddies lined up behind the band at Little Brother’s in Columbus like some dive bar version of Hot 97 Summer Jam — but Pollard came across as unusually spry and vivacious at 65. He’s no longer attempting flying kicks on stage, but he’s still holding his own through lengthy setlists, (mostly) nailing his vocal melodies and churning out the between-songs banter that once became a whole LP unto itself.
Some of his quips were relatively anodyne: “Still going strong. Like old Neil, what did old Neil say? ‘Keep on rockin’ in the free world.’” Others were pure uncut Uncle Bob gems: “Hey, rock and roll, man. It keeps you young. Look at a picture of Mick Jagger next to Mitch McConnell.” Pollard further explained the meme he saw juxtaposing the Rolling Stones frontman and the recently ailing senator from Kentucky. “Never underestimate the power of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Rock makes you look 10 years younger. Hey, do I look 55 tonight?!” After a pause: “He said ‘yeah.’ Thanks for appeasing me.”
On a less jokey note, he also made a point to emphasize the breadth of GBV’s famously dense discography rather than simply focus on the best-known classics from Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, the albums that shot GBV from obscurity to critical acclaim after a decade of messy basement recording and even messier gigs. “Here’s the dilemma,” he told us. “You’ve got 120 albums and 90 minutes.” Really, they played for two hours, then returned Saturday with another lengthy setlist (I couldn’t attend night two), but the point stood. Even though the tracks from this year’s La La Land didn’t generate euphoric shout-alongs like “Tractor Rape Chain” and “Game Of Pricks,” Pollard nobly, stubbornly shined a spotlight on all corners of his catalog. Noting how one song had become a fan favorite, much to his surprise, he told us, “You never know. That’s why you play ’em all.”
The new stuff held up big time, but admittedly there were a handful of crowd favorites that stood above the rest. “Teenage FBI”? Tremendous. “Motor Away”? Masterful. It’s hard to say whether my favorite moment was when a random stranger threw his arm around me while we howled the inscrutable climax of “The Gold Heart Mountaintop Queen Directory” or when the encore ended with a fist-pumping, endorphin-rushing “Glad Girls,” an alt-rock radio hit so timeless they could easily slide it into rotation at classic rock stations too.
Before that encore began, a delegation including Matador Records employee Jake Whitener, Chavez bassist Scott Marshall, and GBV manager David Newgarden came onstage to present Pollard with a trophy dubbed the 40th Annual Gerard Cosloy Award For Most Valuable Lead Singer. As a gesture it was somehow both tongue-in-cheek and wholehearted all at once, an affect that neatly mirrored GBV’s approach to underground rock stardom for the past four decades. Sure, view it as a lifetime achievement award, but Friday night Pollard showed no signs of slowing down or falling off. Another 40 years of abundant output and life-affirming live shows seems unlikely, but at this point, who could be surprised if we’re doing this again in 2063?