42 thoughts on my first Guided By Voices show

GBV played 42 songs in Pittsburgh — so I cooked up that many thoughts on what I saw, heard, and felt.

42 thoughts on my first Guided By Voices show

Guided By Voices have been a band for 40 years but I just saw them for the first time on Saturday April 27th in Pittsburgh. After balking at their uniquely imposing catalog for the first half of my twenties, I finally moved beyond the "yeah, I've heard Bee Thousand a few times" stage over the pandemic, and actually made an effort to get into a bunch of their albums. I also read James Greer's 2005 book, Guided By Voices: A Brief History, which I recommend for casual fans and diehards alike.

Still, I wouldn't call myself a "huge" or even "big" Guided By Voices fan. Like most indie-rock enjoyers, I absolutely adore Robert Pollard's entry-level masterworks — Propeller, Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and to a lesser extent Under the Bushes Under the Stars and Vampire on Titus. But I don't think you're allowed to call yourself a "big" or "serious" or even "considerable" fan of the band unless you're familiar with any of the 30-ish GBV records that most Bee Thousand lovers don't even know the names of.

For the time being, I'm perfectly comfortable being a GBV dilettante with a profound respect for everything the band's done and the fandom they've cultivated. So, in the spirit of their prolific catalog and their tenacity to still bust out 40-plus song sets four decades deep into their career, I cooked up 42 thoughts on Saturday night's GBV show — one thought for every song they played.

But first.....

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1) The crowd is actually younger than I would've anticipated. GBV have been a band for 40 years, and there're definitely some graybeards in here who've been listening to the group for about that long, but I'd say the majority of the room lands in the early-to-mid-30s age range. So I'm still on the younger side, but not by much.

2) The band open with a song I've never heard before, from their latest album, 2023's Nowhere to Go But Up — one of three albums they released in 2023. This will be a theme throughout the night.

3) Their second song, "Serene King," is the brand new track they just released last week. Some people already know the words. It's a good tune! Pollard can hit the strained high notes during the chorus with ease, and it sounds just like something he would've recorded back in '92.

4) Pollard's vocal strength from the first song to the 42nd is particularly remarkable because, good god, the man looks absolutely ancient. I learn after the set that he's only 66, but if I catch him at the right angle onstage he looks no younger than 78. He has a full head of floppy white hair and a youthful (maybe too youthful, as I'll get into later) demeanor, but he has the kind of hunch that reminds me to stand up straight.

5) Even so, the guy's still pulling off microphone swings and ridiculous power stances, like when he snaps his leg up and reaches down to tap it with his finger. Which he can still do! Somehow! I literally don't know how. Because again, the guy looks like if Paul McCartney didn't have access to whatever Qanon freaks think is adrenochrome, but is really just an assortment of rich people ointments that allow 80-year-olds to be permanently embalmed in their 65-year-old skins. Pollard looks positively haggard, but holy hell he can still fucking sing every note he's ever hummed into a four-track.

6) Alright, the third song is one I actually recognize, "Your Name Is Wild" from Under the Bushes...It's a great one and people start bouncing their beers a little more intently in reaction to its familiarity.

7) Aaand now we're back to another 2023 tune I've never heard.

8) I knew going into this that I'd only recognize a solid 10% of what they played, and none of the new songs are bad, so I'm not exactly disappointed while hearing them. I'm mostly just surprised that several people in the room appear to actually know them. That just takes an insane level of dedication to this band that I simply don't have in me to put toward any one artistic entity. I respect that others have that level of interest in A Thing like GBV. That's cool. I just don't have the stamina to invest that much of my time into knowing one single band.

9) "Tractor Rape Chain." What a coarse, squirm-inducing song title. Not sure what's goin' on there. But woof, what a perfect-sounding song.

10) This is about when Pollard begins to banter in between songs. He refers to every single one of GBV's songs as a "hit," and plays up the mythos of the band — and taps into the central conceit of power-pop as a genre — by remarking that his cult-adored indie-rock songs "should've been hits," in the radio sense, but never were.

11) I like that he mimics the exact way fans talk about a band like GBV. As professional pop-rock hitmakers who, through no fault of their own, have never actually had a hit song. That it's the world's fault it never happened, because there's no doubt that the compositional quality of the tracks are up to world-conquering standards. No, it's those damned disc jockeys who never played them and the schlock-slurping masses who never did appreciate their quaint, Kinks-ian genius!

12) It's hard to tell if he's just parroting what fans have said about the band for decades, or if he genuinely believes that he's been screwed over by the pop music machine. Probably a bit of both, but he doesn't seem to give a shit so long as he has a beer in one hand and a swingable microphone in the other.

13) The first few times Pollard speaks in between songs, he sounds like he's actively switching between three different accents. At points, he sounds like he's sung in a British affect for so long that it's actually influenced the way he talks, but then his pronounced Ohioan accent will take over and he suddenly sounds like some yokel behind the bar at a Dayton dive.

14) The third accent he tosses into the mix is just Drunk Old Guy, and two-thirds of the way through the two-and-a-half-hour affair, it becomes his primary speaking voice. He basically sounds like Joe Biden on an off-night. For a while, I'm able to make out every other word and get a vague idea of what he's saying. But at a certain point, he's just slurring the titles for what might as well be completely made-up GBV songs, and then snapping into picture-perfect singing form as soon as the song begins.

15) It doesn't seem to matter how drunk he gets, because the guy can still enunciate every line exactly how they sound on recordings. It's insane. Sometimes he falls just shy of a high note, or bends a word a little bit outside of the key. But then he'll just roar the hook of a song like "I Am a Tree" and I'm taken aback by how powerful his voice still sounds.

16) It's hard to tell how drunk Pollard actually is. He has a cooler in front of the drumkit that he flips open a couple times during the first half of the set, pulling out a cold beer, cranking off the cap with the bottom of his shirt, and swigging in between songs. But he's not visibly pounding beers, even though he sounds progressively more hammered as the night goes on. As if he's just absorbing all the alcohol in the room through osmosis.

17) At one point he pulls a handle of liquor out of the cooler and takes a few gulps. It's a bizarre, hilarious, and mildly concerning sight to behold because the guy looks like a few sips of brandy would send him onto the fainting couch. But he handles his shit, and a couple songs later he just passes the whole bottle to a group of fans upfront and let's them have at it.

18) As you might imagine, yes, many people in the crowd are obliterated. Five or six songs in, some 40-something beer boy rips down the right aisle where I'm standing, pawing through a thicket of static shoulders with the intensity of someone who's seconds away from missing their connection in a busy airport. He eventually gets a few rows back from the stage and starts aggressively finger-pointing along while throwing his arm over his buddy's shoulder. You don't see that type of shit at a Yo La Tengo show.

19) Alright, it took about 35 minutes to kick in but my knees are starting to ache a bit. Time to stretch 'em and strap in, this is far from over.

20) I spend a couple minutes thinking about whether Pollard's arm movements take place above or below the elbow. Is your hand above or below your elbow? Below probably, right? Since that's technically downward from what's considered the top of your body, your head and shoulders. Hm.

21) Anyways yeah, Pollard's got moves, but most of his arm maneuvers happen below his elbow, as his shoulders and upper back remain rather stiff while his forearms daintily spin like pinwheels. Hell, if I can still do that shit when I'm 66 then I'll be in a good spot.

22) Alright some of these new songs have these hammy hard-rock riffs that don't really work for me. I don't need GBV to sound like Cheap Trick. I need them to sound like they're trying to sound like Cheap Trick but just falling short. That's what makes Propeller so great.

23) They don't play a single song off of Propeller all night. Boooo, but so it goes.

24) About halfway through the set I'm reminded that drunken 66-year-old men have the sense of humor of drunken 66-year-old men. After getting the room to hoot and holler for his band's own hits, he asks the room if they like, "The Beatles' hits?" "I like the Beatles' hits," he replies. "What about Pearl Jam's hits? The Foo Fighters' hits? Courtney Love's hits? What about Courtney Love's tits?" Yikes.

25) Friend of the blog Shawn Cooke (of the blog Even Better, which you should subscribe to) was standing with me all night, and at one point he leans in to tell me that Pollard is "basically if your dad's crazy friend had a band." Beautifully put.

26) Ooohhkaay man. Yes, you in front of me with the electrocuted wizard hair, stumbling through the crowd with a drunken gait and stopping to bellow into your equally boozy friend's ear for two songs straight, all while lurching back into my personal space without realizing that your sweat-soaked back is dampening my much dryer forearms. Yes, you, move it along. Git! Git outta here! Fuckin drunk-ass, fun-having motherfucker. Ight good, yep move on up. Yep say your goodbyes to your buddy. Alright good you're gone. Phew!

27) "Game of Pricks" is a perfect rock song, but you already knew that, right? Everyone in the room certainly did.

28) Again, I'm puzzled by how drunk Pollard is sounding relative to how much he appears to be drinking. He makes a joke about how he and his bandmates were getting "fucked up" backstage before the show, and the rest of the band definitely appear to be in a similar state of glassy-eyed merriment. But most of the beers Pollard pulls out of the cooler just end up in the hands at the front of the stage. Is he just drunk on "hits"? Are his boozy bumblings a bit?

29) Lmao Pollard is doing this weird-ass move where he's trying to stand on one leg like a drunken seagull. Earlier in the set, he introduced his bandmates, and guitarist Bobby Bare Jr. — who looks kinda like Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew — started doing some kind of demented bear walk across the stage. Just total drunk doofball shit. Type of shit you and your buddies get into after the garage keg is half-emptied and you're at the point where backyard wrestling begins to sound like a reasonable and fun idea.

30) The fresh-faced bassist looks like the actor who plays the tour guide in the haunted house episode of I Think You Should Leave. But if that guy was trying out for a Broadway adaptation of School of Rock. He rules.

31) I love seeing how much drummer Kevin March laughs during the set. He's been with GBV since 2002, so he's had a million opportunities to witness Pollard's onstage ramblings. Even so, he guffaws during many of the the singer's quips in a way that's hearteningly natural. He still finds Pollard hilarious after all these years, and March's excited reactions reassure me that Pollard doesn't just give the same spiels every night. I don't think the drummer would laugh that hard if Bob wasn't just riffing off the dome. Fun!

32) Fuckin' knees, man. I've been standing in one spot for two hours and finished my seltzer about 25 songs back. Sheesh.

33) "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory" is a better song than "Baba O'Riley."

34) I don't really think that but GBV play it with enough conviction to convince me otherwise for the entirety of its one minute and 45-second runtime.

35) "Stabbing at Fractions" from GBV's 2023 album Nowhere to Go but Up is better than any song the Arctic Monkeys have ever written.

36) Yes, I really think that.

37) Some of these motherfuckers aren't gonna get out of bed until 4 p.m. tomorrow afternoon. Some druuuuuunk motherfuckers in this room right now.

38) Alright it's encore time. Their encore is six songs and lasts for approximately 12 minutes. It's fuckin' hit after hit.

39) "A Salty Salute" is a better song than.........fuck idk man, like any other song that's ever been written as long as you're watching GBV play it spotlessly to an entire room of fans who know every single word and are practically in tears while singing it.

40) Guided By Voices played songs from 22 (!) different albums tonight. And then one "cover" of the Robert Pollard solo song, "Love Is Witchcraft." I had never heard that song before because hell no I haven't made my way down into Pollard's 22 (!!!!!) different solo albums. But it's a great fuckin' song. It's as good as any damn GBV song. It should've been a hit.

41) I'm slowly trudging out of the venue and thinking about how being a real fan of this band requires you to fully buy into their prolific output. They're not just releasing new music for themselves while mostly playing the "hits" from 30 years ago live. They played nine songs from their 2023 output tonight. They played more songs from their second album of 2022 than they did Under the Bushes... And people knew those songs! Not everyone, by any means. Most people around me hardly seemed to know any of them. But there were a sizeable number of people there who knew these completely foreign GBV songs.

Knowing them enough to cheer when Pollard announced their gibberish titles felt like a sign of respect to the band that true GBV heads are expected to show. I like that. GBV have proven that you can be an old-ass band releasing gobs of new music, and you can actually get your fans to care about them simply by forcing them to hear them at these sprawling shows. Where the new "hits" are played with the same amount of vigor as the old "hits," not meekly trotted out toward the top of the setlist and then buried under a mound of classics for the rest of the night.

42) When I've seen Built to Spill in that same venue, for instance, no one gives a fuck about the new songs. No one is coming out to see Built to Spill play Untethered Moon songs. No one wants to hear Dinosaur Jr. play shit off their new album that I can't remember the title of because the "Sludgefeast" riff is playing in my head now and why the fuck would I try to remember the name to their new album when I can just think about hearing the "Sludgefeast" riff live?

But people came to see GBV play a 2023 song called "Jack of Legs" from their 39th studio album, and they showed Mr. Pollard some goddamned respect by singing the words they know and slurping a beer during the ones they don't. Because they know that "Jack of Legs" is a hit, dammit. Or it least it should've been a hit, dammit. If we sing it loud enough tonight then maybe it will be a hit, dammit.