LIVE REVIEW: Guided By Voices, Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR

This review is part of a series on MusicFest Northwest Presents: Project Pabst. This includes Digable Planets and both Day One and Day Two of the main festival.

Guided By Voices // Photo Credit: Hollister Dixon

Guided By Voices // Photo Credit: Hollister Dixon

By Hollister Dixon

I started 2014 as a passive fan of Guided By Voices. I’d heard Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes just like the next guy, but they never connected with me in the way they did with some people. I was never into lo-fi recordings, finding them hard to really connect with when you have to wade through muddy production just to hear the good stuff. Then, in June, I discovered the secret: I actually saw Guided By Voices. This show was – and there’s no way around the word – transformative. I walked away from that performance ravenous for everything Robert Pollard had ever done. I obsessed over their music. I alienated people around me with this obsession. In August, just two weeks before getting to end my Summer Of Pollard with another Guided By Voices show, I branded myself with the GBV rune and the word “Incurable”, from the song “I Am A Scientist” (“I am a journalist, I write to you to show you: I am an incurable, and nothing else behaves like me.”)

One week after I got that tattoo, Guided By Voices announced that they were not only cancelling their entire tour, but breaking up entirely. “Guided By Voices has come to an end. With 4 years of great shows and six killer albums, it was a hell of a comeback run. The remaining shows in the next two months are unfortunately canceled.” Even as a new acolyte, it felt less like the band had broken up, and more like Bob Pollard had personally broken up with me. This was short-lived, though: in February, another reunion was announced – though it deviated entirely from the classic lineup entirely. Pollard recruited Bobby Bare Jr. (who opened for GBV at that first show, funnily enough), Kevin March, Nick Mitchell, and Mark Shue. In mid-July, the reunion added former guitarist Doug Gillard to flesh everything out. Sure, it was less a Guided By Voices reunion and more of a “Bob Pollard + Doug Gillard + a few hired guns” tour… but, any chance to hear GBV songs is worth it. Right?

Let’s get my biggest criticism out of the way: I like Bob Pollard’s solo work. I like Ricked Wicky. I really like Boston Spaceships. The unfortunate side-effect of GBV being GBV in-name-only is that it opened this tour up to be Pollard playing a lot of Guided By Voices songs as well as a ton of his other work as well. This is going to sound like a silly thing to complain about, but I went into this show because I’m a fan of Guided By Voices. I’m a fan of those other bands too, and I’d expect to hear them if I saw a Bob Pollard show, but I wanted a Guided By Voices show. While the crowd was full of rabid Pollard devotees, the way the energy shifted when he went from the run of “Cut-Out Witch”, “Come On Mr. Christian”, “I Am A Tree”, and “Teenage FBI” to a run of solo/side project songs was incredibly obvious every time the set was punctuated by a non-GBV track. That said, with a whopping 99 releases to his name, dipping into his other wells is somewhat unavoidable.

Another incredibly minor complaint I had was that, quite frankly, Pollard seemed to be a little lethargic at moment. This is a valid observation, of course, but it is also an absurd complaint for a number of reasons. For one, Pollard is 58 years old. For another, even a low-energy Pollard still does more high-kicks and mic tricks than just about any musician on the planet. And – and this really makes my complaint truly absurd – they played 52 songs in three hours. You read that right: they did fifty-two songs. Look at this setlist. It’s absurd, right? In the days after, when I’d tell people how long the show was, they’d look at me like they were insane for doing it, and I was insane for sitting through it. Honestly, the show could have gone on for another hour and I’d still have stuck up there at the front of the stage.

At the end of the day, though, even a “not-quite-Guided By Voices” Guided By Voices show, fronted by a slightly sleepy Robert Pollard, is still a fucking Guided By Voices show, and I still got to spend three hours absorbing the might and the majesty of this band. Over the course of those three hours, we got just about every hit in the band’s arsenal – “Game Of Pricks”, “Tractor Rape Chain”, “Glad Girls”, “Echos Myron”, “Motor Away” – alongside an embarrassing amount of great deeper cuts (“Shocker in Gloomtown”!) and rarities (“Dragons Awake!”). Pollard’s band roared through every single song perfectly, proving to be a band too tight to be waved-away as “hired guns”. Bobby Bare Jr. and Doug Gillard were the twin-guitar all-stars of the show, and though they lack the same flair as Mitch Mitchell and Greg Demos, I couldn’t bring myself to be unhappy with their performances.

The performance by the band was fantastic, and it was made better by the crowd. Few crowds are as fiercely passionate as GBV fans, and I spent countless songs in a state of arms-around-necks singing the band’s songs as loud as our voices would allow. I was smothered in hugs more times than I could count, my voice and hearing destroyed by the nonstop rock onslaught. It’s a rare band that inspires people’s love to spill over onto everyone within arm’s reach, but this band may be the poster band for that ideal. Despite running until a quarter ’til 1am, the crowd’s energy didn’t wane even as the three-hour mark neared, or as the band re-took the stage for a second encore. By the time they played their final song, a barn-burning cover of “Baba O’Riley” by The Who, the crowd’s love threatened to blow the roof off the building. After the final bows, I stumbled out into the night deaf, hoarse, and an even bigger fan than I was when I walked in that evening.

This iteration of Guided By Voices brings up a lot of questions about what constitutes a “reunion”, and if it actually counts if only one member is an original member. It’s a subject I would debate more if I could bring myself to mind what they call themselves. The Fall’s Mark E. Smith once said, “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.” Bob Pollard can call this group whatever he likes, as long as he can still put on blistering, transformative performances when he brings his band to the stage.

Come on, the club is open.

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