Explicitly Laid Out Like a Fruitcake: A Short History of 16 Guided by Voices Shows

June 20, 2014, at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin

I saw Guided by Voices for the 16th time on Friday. Guided by Voices is my favorite band of all time. I first saw GBV in 2000 during my senior year of college. I am now the same age that Robert Pollard was when Bee Thousand was released on June 21, 1994.

GBV shows are different now that I’m older. For instance, it used to be incredibly important for me to consume the exact right combination of chemicals before, during, and after a GBV experience. This was to ensure that I was intoxicated enough to almost fall down, but not so intoxicated that I actually did fall down. I’m a husband and father now, though, so my priorities have shifted. I no longer take a drink every time Bob counts off a new song. I have grown-man matters to attend to. Before Friday’s gig, my friend and frequent GBV copilot Andy revealed that, after studying recent set lists closely, the no. 1 best song at which to exit for the bathroom without missing anything good was “Males of Wormwood Mars,” from this year’s (pretty good) Cool Planet. I believe we ended up going two songs before that song, and missing “Teenage FBI.” But still, good advice.

January 14, 2000, at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.

As any serious GBV fan will tell you, it’s a little odd that this version of GBV is playing “Teenage FBI” on the latest tour. In 2010, Pollard reconvened the band’s “classic” lineup, composed of musicians who backed him on beloved mid-’90s albums like Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes Under the Stars. This includes Tobin Sprout (GBV’s George Harrison figure), Mitch Mitchell (its Keith Richards), Greg Demos (a.k.a. the guy in the striped pants), and (for a time) Kevin Fennell, the batshit drummer, recently dismissed in the wake of trying to sell his drums on eBay for $55,000. He is missed.

The first several GBV gigs I ever saw were with the post-“classic” lineup anchored by Doug Gillard, Nate Farley, and Tim Tobias. (That’s the one that originally recorded “Teenage FBI” for 1999’s Do the Collapse.) The classic lineup is the classic lineup, but I’ll always have affection for the incarnation I initially saw in person.

I knew very little about GBV the first time I saw them. What I knew were the records, which I loved, and the photo on the back cover of my favorite album ever, Alien Lanes, which pictured five scruffy weekend-warrior rocker dudes sitting on a couch in what appeared to be a basement. I wasn’t even sure who Pollard was — for a while I thought it was the (relatively) sharp-dressed guy looking directly into the camera, but that was (temporary) bassist James Greer. It turned out Pollard was the guy wearing the red, white, and blue Chuck Taylors. His head was tilted up and his eyes were closed, presumably because he was in the midst of writing “The Official Ironmen Rally Song” or something.

I wound up leaving this show early, because I was there by myself and I was nervous about taking the right Metro train back to the house where I was staying during my monthlong internship in D.C.

October 13, 2010, at the Riviera in Chicago

I’m self-conscious about grossing people out with my GBV fandom, so I’m trying really hard to be levelheaded about this. I’ll be extra careful about couching this statement: GBV’s output between 1994 and ’96 basically amounts to my Beatles. Notice I said my Beatles, not yours or anybody else’s. No music fills me with more joy.

I never thought I’d see the band that played on those mid-’90s records live. The closest I came was in 1996, when they played at my college, the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, one semester before I started my freshman year. Not long after, the lineup dissolved and Pollard rebooted with Cobra Verde acting as his backing group on 1997’s Mag Earwhig! All I have from the UW–Eau Claire gig is a soundboard tape. Pollard talks about how the student union has a Burger King. My memory has nearly Memento’ed me into believing I was really there.

This show at the Riviera was on GBV’s first reunion tour, before they put out any new music and when they were doing only hits. It’s pretty amazing how GBV subsequently picked up where it left off, putting out new music roughly every six months. I don’t know that Cool Planet is an essential addition to the GBV canon, but I’m happy it exists. I’m happy all the recent GBV records exist, because they all have at least a handful of amazing songs. (Like this one.)

Also: This is the only GBV gig where I didn’t have to abandon my spot on the floor to hit the bathroom even one time. My bladder was bulletproof that night. (Not a GBV song title, but could be.)

April 8, 2004, at the Cactus Club in Milwaukee

The key to GBV’s classic lineup is, of course, Sprout, the closest thing to a songwriting foil that Pollard has ever had. (I say “of course” because I assume only GBV fanatics are still reading.) This was a Tobin Sprout solo gig, from which I concluded that he is indeed an excellent sideman. I think I ducked out early, though I did hear him play “Gas Daddy Gas,” one of the damn prettiest tracks from one of Sprout’s damn pretty solo records.

January 24, 2003, at the Metro in Chicago

My favorite member of the post-classic lineup is Farley, who was definitely the most “rock-and-roll” guy in GBV at the time. I used a photo of Farley taking a massive pull from a Jack Daniel’s bottle at this Metro show as my screen saver for a long time. When the concert was over, he stepped off the stage with his ax still strapped on and wandered around the audience like an alcoholic mother looking for her child, dog, car keys, or whatever. I walked up to pat him on the back, but one of his minders suddenly materialized to shoo me away. Wherever you are, Nate Farley, I’m patting you on the back now.

November 19, 2003, at the Regent Street Retreat Annex in Madison, Wisconsin

This was the second-drunkest night of my life. During one of the many encores, I went to get another drink and wound up putting my head on the bar. Several minutes (hours?) later, I lifted my head and the show was over. I turned to my left and Pollard was standing there, his shirt drenched in sweat, talking to two girls. I staggered over, put my arm around him, and slurred, “YouarethebestlivebandI’veeverseen. Thank you … so much BURRRRP.” I can’t imagine how irritating this must have been, but Pollard just smiled, shook my hand, and said, “That’s what we do.”

I now try to stick to shitty light beers at GBV shows, so I can avoid this kind of jackassery. (Even though this specific instance of jackassery resulted in a cool moment with one of my heroes.)

August 11, 2012, at the Metro in Chicago

A few words about the recent 20th anniversary of Bee Thousand: It’s not my favorite GBV album; Alien Lanes is. Alien Lanes was the one I heard first. I read about it in Rolling Stone, which tells you how far removed I was from zines and college radio and cool underground record stores that are closed now. But based on the empirical evidence, you can’t really argue against Bee Thousand being the best one. Musically, every song matters.

Aesthetically, it personifies everything GBV is associated with: lo-fi, brutally succinct songs, surrealistic lyrics, and the four P’s (punk, prog, pop, and psych). Philosophically, it is the best representation of Pollard’s artistic point of view: In a nutshell, aim for greatness but don’t sweat the small stuff. Personally, it’s the most inspirational. Pollard thought he was done after this one. He was a schoolteacher with a family living in the middle of Ohio. This “follow your muse” crap was starting to get embarrassing. Then he made his masterpiece. This is why we call him Uncle Bob — he was a cool father figure and role model whom so many of us living unglamorous lives in unglamorous places gravitated toward. Bee Thousand was hope that you could live the life you wanted even after life became real life.

This Metro gig happened almost exactly one month after my son was born. Somehow my eternally understanding wife allowed me to hit the road again with Andy. We charged the stage around the time they played “Echoes Myron” in the first encore, and I almost lost it during “Smothered in Hugs” in the third encore. The next day, I wanted to die.

Photo of GUIDED BY VOICES

November 13, 2004, at the Fillmore in San Francisco

This was on the Electrifying Conclusion Tour, which I remember at the time being a little anticlimactic because Pollard was seemingly putting out records every other week. Frankly, I was worn out with GBV. I had stopped buying everything Pollard put out, and even the proper GBV records weren’t doing it for me anymore. Still, this gig bummed me out. I was used to seeing GBV multiple times per year. 2004 was already one of the worst years of my life, filled with loss and dashed hopes, and here was another thing I could no longer rely on.

May 9, 2002, at Gabe’s Oasis in Iowa City, Iowa

One of the best ever. (You can hear it here.) Gabe’s Oasis is one of those great small-town rock clubs — the stage was in this weird attic, the ceiling was super low, and the backstage door led directly to the fire escape. My Morning Jacket opened and (I believe) they played “Ironmen,” but I was too busy pregaming to pay close attention. GBV played forever. Before the third encore (and 52nd song), the audience sang “A Salty Salute,” and then the band came out and played it. At some point, Pollard threw out his back, which necessitated the cancellation of the next night’s show in Grinnell. My group of friends didn’t know this until we drove to the venue and were told directly. This is why smartphones were invented.

June 30, 2002, at Summerfest in Milwaukee

Guided by Voices is known for short songs and long concert sets, so seeing them at a festival is always a disappointment. They played 27 songs and somehow it wasn’t nearly enough. At a normal GBV gig, that’s just the first half. Bob’s between-song patter is just getting warmed up by then.

July 15, 2011, at Pitchfork Fest in Chicago

Ditto the Summerfest show times 10. Pitchfork Fest is the opposite of Gabe’s Oasis in so many crucial ways.

April 12, 2003, at the Vic Theatre in Chicago

The only time I saw GBV open for another band in a non-festival situation, which afforded enough time for “only” 20 songs. The headliner was Cheap Trick, whom I love in part because Robert Pollard implored GBV fans to listen to them in interviews. Other music I love because of Robert Pollard interviews: Peter Gabriel–era Genesis, Wire, the obscure ’60s British psych band Wimple Winch, Frank Sinatra’s Watertown. Cheap Trick fans hated Guided by Voices.

March 9, 2002, at First Avenue in Minneapolis

The first-drunkest night of my life. My mistake was showing up with only a couple of bucks. The people you stand with at a GBV show start out as strangers but become fast friends. If I’m ever sent to war, line me up with people who can name a favorite track off of Vampire on Titus. (It’s “Dusted” for me, though admittedly the version on the Fast Japanese Spin Cycle EP is the definitive version.) When I ran out of money, best friends and complete strangers and complete strangers who were now best friends kept on buying me Newcastles, which I repaid in endless sloppy bear hugs. I remember only maybe the first dozen or so songs, and after that I blacked out. I have a recording of this show, and you can hear me screaming like a true idiot between every song. I deserve to have this version of myself preserved for posterity.

April 24, 2004, at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City

This was the show at which Pollard announced from the stage that GBV was breaking up at the end of the year. It was a terrible gig for other reasons, too — the band played like shit, just acting way too fucked up and allowing every moron up onto the stage to take the microphone and sing along. My group left early.

March 31, 2006, at the Metro in Chicago

My one time seeing Robert Pollard as a solo artist. I bought a T-shirt that said “ROBERT POLLARD 60 ASSHOLES AND A PISS BUCKET TOUR 2006.” There aren’t many occasions where wearing a shirt that says “60 ASSHOLES AND A PISS BUCKET” is appropriate.

December 8, 2001, at Birdy’s in Indianapolis

This is the one, the night I’ve been chasing for 13 years and counting, not just at GBV gigs but at all concerts. It is, hands down, the greatest rock show I’ve ever seen, and the happiest night of my life that didn’t involve getting married or seeing the birth of my kid. Everything was perfect: The venue was suitably divey but also homey, the crowd was incredibly friendly, my group was into the adventure of the night, I had the right exact combination of chemicals in my body, and the band performed superbly. (It might seem strange to put “the band played superbly” last in that sentence, but the preceding factors are arguably more important for a perfect rock show.) At the end of the night, my feet were covered in beer bottles and I was arm in arm with blood brothers and sisters whose names I don’t recall and probably never knew. It was magic.

This past Friday’s show wasn’t magic, but it was still great. Mitch Mitchell hollered backing vocals through clenched teeth holding an omnipresent cigarette. Tobin Sprout sang “Ester’s Day.” Robert Pollard nailed his high kicks. When they played “Shocker in Gloomtown,” I didn’t rush the stage, but I wanted to. I bear-hugged the guy next to me after a security guard told him to stop standing on his seat. I left feeling better about my place in the world. May the next 16 Guided by Voices shows be just as glorious.

Filed Under: Music, guided by voices, Alien Lanes, Bee Thousand, Robert Pollard

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland. He is currently writing a book on pop-music rivalries.

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