"We showed 'em how to do it then, and we'll show 'em how to do it now," Guided By Voices frontman Bob Pollard told the crowd at New York's Central Park yesterday as his band closed out the first-ever CBGB festival in sweltering heat. Pollard has always been one for on-stage bravado – especially after half a dozen beers or so – but on this particular bill, you had to hope that the other bands were standing at the side of the stage taking notes. The openers – Cloud Nothings, the War on Drugs and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart – all have their charms on record but fell flat on the big stage. Cloud Nothings meandered through a half hour set, extending Replacements-meets-Nirvana rockers into clumsy and aimless rehearsal room jams. The War on Drugs got into their Americana shoegazer groove and never budged from it, while the Pains delivered their jangly indie-pop tunes without projecting personality or passion. These young bands had promise, but no pizazz.
Pollard and his crew were sloppy but confident, busting through a few dozen songs in just over an hour, occasionally tossing out crowd-pleasers while keeping a firm emphasis on recently released material. Pollard reunited the "classic lineup" of the band – basically, the quintet that produced the lo-fi landmarks Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes – in 2010, and spent a good chunk of the past year playing gigs focused exclusively on music from the mid-Nineties. That sort of sustained nostalgia was out of character for the relentlessly productive band, and this year, the group set itself back on course, having already released two new albums – Let's Go Eat the Factory and Class Clown Spots a UFO – with a third record, Bears for Lunch, on the way. (After previewing the instantly catchy Bears track "Hangover Child," Pollard quipped "That song means you have to keep buying our records!")
Aside from a handful of keepers like "The Unsinkable Fats Domino," "Class Clown Spots a UFO" and "God Loves Us," the newer GBV tunes aren't up to the standard of this lineup's glory days, but the band played the songs with enough swagger that it didn't matter that they weren't playing nonstop classics. Pollard, now in his mid-50s, has developed a kingly demeanor as he has aged, exalting in his position as a cult rock hero. His bandmates, most of whom had been basically retired from music for over a decade before getting in on the reunion tour, play up every moment on stage, fully appreciative of the chance to live out rock star dreams that were just out of reach even when their version of GBV was breaking out in the mid-Nineties. Guitarist Mitch Mitchell is particularly striking – he's the perfect archetype of the Midwestern punk badass, and actually playing in a band seems incidental to his rocker persona. He played every song with a cigarette clenched in his mouth as he rocked out with exaggerated gestures; a sexy rocker lady in sunglasses and short shorts stood by his amp and gazed out at the crowd for the entire show, as if to visually complement his unapologetic bad boy vibe.
The crowd was cool with the new material, but lit up with joy whenever the group tossed out one of their best-known tunes. "Game of Pricks" and "Echoes Myron" triggered full-throated sing-alongs, and "Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory" had the field pumping their fists to one of the most inscrutable yet majestic anthems in rock history. As with most Guided By Voices shows, the most emotionally resonant moment of the set came halfway through the Bee Thousand gem, "I Am A Scientist," a melancholy number that effectively sums up Pollard's compulsion to write an endless stream of songs and his deep commitment to living out his rock dreams, if just on a modest scale. "I am a lost soul, I shoot myself with rock & roll / the hole I dig is bottomless / but nothing else can set me free," he sings, the words stinging with truth for anyone who has ever found temporary solace in rock music. Pollard's songwriting may have its ups and downs, but his commitment to digging that proverbial hole is endlessly inspiring.
Guided by Voices' setlist at Central Park on July 7th was as follows:
"Laundry and Lasers"
"Roll of the Dice, Kick in the Head"
"Doughnut for a Snowman"
"He Rises! Our Union Bellboy"
"Blue Babbleships Bay"
"Shocker in Gloomtown"
"The Unsinkable Fats Domino"
"God Loves Us"
"Class Clown Spots a UFO"
"Hang Up and Try Again"
"The Opposite Continues"
"Keep It in Motion"
"Game of Pricks"
"I Am A Scientist"
"Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory"
"We Won't Apologize for the Human Race"
"14 Cheerleader Coldfront"
"Quality of Armor"
"Matter Eater Lad"