Robert Pollard, Guided by Voices' mainman, is a character.
He doesn't try to be, but he's a songwriting machine who can be afraid to perform, a rock star with a comical lack of coordination and a former fourth-grade teacher who can drink your sorry face under the table.
The Ohio combo known as GbV began many beers ago as a spastic exercise in indie obscurity. That's not what the Dayton men really wanted they'd have preferred to sound as big as the Who but basement 4-tracks don't translate those aspirations very well.
So for 10 years, a rotating membership churned out lo-fi, pop-rock gems. The indie world finally discovered the band around 1993, and Pollard, now pushing 40, married with children, has been a hero ever since.
He's an odd hero, an enigmatic chap. On stage, he's a combination of Roger Daltrey and Ronald McDonald. And in certain circles, his melodic legend is as large.
His new backing band, former Scat labelmates Cobra Verde (remember Death of Samantha?), started the Galaxy show big and heavy. Pollard bounced onto the stage, drinking and singing, and the crowd yelled. From there, the band kept up the noise, Pollard kept up the drinking and the crowd stood around, St. Louis-style.
GbV ran through many songs from the new Matador Records release, Mag Earwhig!, including the psychedelic anthem Jane of the Waking Universe and the rock'n'roll Not Behind the Fighter Jet. The profound Bulldog Skin, and guitarist Doug Gillard's punk statement, I Am a Tree, emerged as serious masterpieces.
But a little something was missing. Perhaps it was simple nostalgia for the old, blustery band that stumbled through beer-stained Ohio gigs, surrounded more by friends than fans.
Great songs from old lineups, such as Stabbing a Star (originally from an Anyway Records 7" and later, Sunfish Holy Breakfast), My Impression Now (from Fast Japanese Spin Cycle) and Smothered in Hugs and Hot Freaks (from Bee Thousand) were given the hard-rock treatment. The sober machinations of Cleveland's Cobra Verde are tight and often clever, but live, the foursome carries an industrial cityboy menace that doesn't always jive with Pollard's Beatlisms and lyrical idiosyncracies.
The old incarnations of GbV would cover ground from flower power dippiness to basementalities to would-be arena rock all in the name of pop. They were sloppy, loud and mercurial: the moniker Guided by Voices was perfect. But Cobra Verde sounds like its name as well: quick and sinister, dark, determined and lively all in the name of rock.
The Galaxy set highlighted these differences more than Mag Earwhig! does, but it didn't much matter. GbV is a fun experience regardless. In the past, Pollard's dominating pop sensibilities have been strong enough to overcome debilitating tape hiss and drunken technical errors. Working with a solid rock band, his frantic, imbiblical talent still shined.
Pollard drinks so much while performing that you half expect his teeth to fall out of his gums during a good yell. Instead, he does Rockette kicks and swings the mic like Daltrey, and beerspit and Bobsweat flies 360. His teeth stay safe behind a hazy pout or smile, his eyes blurrily looking through or over the crowd.
It was rather funny when he reached into the cooler on the drum riser and pulled out a Bud Light, then quickly threw it back and fished out a regular Budweiser. St. Louis. Crazy town! Budweiser!, he yelled several times throughout the night. But one could tell his only heartfelt connection to the city was his recognition of the late band Drunks With Guns (and Scat man Robert Griffin, of course).
At the end, Pollard and Gillard came out for a short and moving encore and left the stage in what seemed like a final way. The crowd chanted GbV!, as it is wont to do, and the band came out again for what felt like a cursory two or three songs.
But Pollard is talented and inspired and he writes songs that are fun. They can be dark or esoteric or derivative, but he's a natural-born hook-writer, a stream-of-consciousness song factory. He once estimated that he's written more than 2,500 songs. If he sounds like a zealot, believe it, he is. He's a fan of music of all sounds and sizes from '60s pop to Devo artiness to obscure punk. It's just that the band didn't quite give St. Louis this kind of variation, or the dipsomaniacal jocularity that GbV was once known for.
Openers Superconductor must be accused of overkill. The band's ambitious orchestrations were impressive, but get this with eight people on stage (five guitars, three keyboards, bass, drums, vocals), it looked like the Vancouver octet would create a constant, furious and expansive wall of sound. The young men noodled much and riffed plenty, playing quite tightly, but it seemed far too deliberate and lofty to feel like a good jam. Think some Six Finger Satellite (freak-out) and a little too much Kings of Kings (loaded spirituality). Superconductor seems likely to do something really good someday but with a lineup like that, it better be brilliant, or it's all just more wanking.
(GbV/Cobra Verde guitarist John Petkovic kept an e-mail diary of the the group's recent West Coast tour for the online music magazine Addicted to Noise. Check Music News of the World at http://www.addict.com/MNOTW/ to get an idea about how much more fun the shows with fellow Ohioans Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments appeared to have been.)
|By The Billy Keaggy | Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 1997
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