Guided By Voices, Nov. 22 2003
The Abbey Pub is much harder to get to than it should be, and illustrative of how the Chicago transit system makes fools out of all of us. According to directories, you can reach the bar at “Addison.” I went to Addison, then asked where 3240 Grace was. And it was 25 blocks away. What the directories mean is that you can use the Blue line Addison, but not the other Addisons. And how to you get to the Blue line from Evanston? You go downtown, which takes about 45 minutes, then you switch and go back up the Blue.
I took a cab.
A line was forming 25 minutes before the doors opened, and 85 minutes before showtime. It was here that I was reminded why I like going to GBV shows. The people behind me – two thirtysomething guys and their thirtysomething galpal – were wondering about the physics of Bob Pollard. How can he drink and smoke to excess every night and not be dead, or at breathing through a machine? Then somehow they started talking about the movies “Irreversible” (shit) and “Audition” (insane, but not shit). And I sort of sidled into the conversation and learned that they had all flown in from LA to see the show – their second GBV show this month. When we finally got in and moved to the stage, we traded business cards (in my case, a “School of Rock” ticket with my address on it) and agreed to trade show photos for a DVD this guy had recorded of the band’s St. Louis Show.
The excitement inside was thick – unusually thick. It just so happened that tonight’s opening act was Tobin Sprout, who had played guitar and wrote songs for the band’s best albums before leaving the group in 1996. Rumors ruffled through the crowd. Jim from Michigan, who – I’m serious – punctuated every other sentence by saying “Rock and Roll!” – had heard that Tobin would come onstage and play with Bob.
“You know, you can see it, right?” he said. “Bob comes out and puts him in a headlock. ‘Hey buddy!’ He’ll act like they’re best friends.
We’d find out. Tobin came on at 10:20, and looked as different from the voice I heard on Bee Thousand and Carnival Boy as could be imagined. On record, Tobin sounds 17 years old – thin, embarressed and reedy. In person, he’s a middle-aged guy with a Hawaiian shirt.
His voice was completely buried in the mix – his band of Stephen Malkmus lookalikes, on guitar, bass, keyboard and drums (more than Sprout actually uses on his records), drowned out most of his singing. But the setlist was impeccable. He played the best songs from his first three solo albums, and ramped them up beyond recognition. “Get Out of My Throat,” an angry little tune off Carnival Boy, turned into riff rock.
At this point it’s useful to discriminate between the songwriting styles of Sprout and Pollard. Pollard has always relished rock star poses, dance moves, and interspersing slow songs with three or four epic rock songs. Sprout, on the other hand, is an indie rocker. He stands on stage motionless, occasionally looking at his fretboard to see if he’s got the chords right. His songwriting swings between two poles that happen to be three inches apart – there are slow songs that sound like The Cars, and there are fast songs that sound like The Cars. Tobin finishes the set without smiling or interacting with the crowd, and walks off stage at 10:55.
Then he comes back, and Bob is behind him.
The crowd goes completely insane. Understand, a GBV fan necessarily owns 5 times as many records as a Radiohead fan, or 10 times as many as a White Stripes fan. These guys recorded more than 150 songs together, and they mean more to the crowd than church. (Tobin’s performance of “Gleemer” from Vampire on Titus got the best crowd reaction previously). So they sing “14 Cheerleader Coldfront,” which is about 70 seconds long. And that’s it. The two middle-aged guys leave and the band and roadies start playing with cords.
The atmosphere gets uglier in the next 30 minutes. Some asshole in a three piece suit with Cheap Trick buttons on the lapel muscles up to the front row, holding a glass of Johnny Walker Red. “I JUST WANNA GIVE BOB A DRINK!” he says. Dumbass that he is, he tried to give it to guitarist Nate Farley when he becomes the first guy onstage. Nate stopped drinking hard liquor this year. Some fan.
GBV play with our emotions – Bob sticks himself in the doorway behind the stage just enough to cast a shadow. When we see his shaggy hairdo in silhouette a roar builds up, and the people behind me make devil horns and chant “G-B-V! G-B-V!” The band are introduced as castmembers of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Bob grabs the whisky – “Thanks for the drink. Because that’s just what I need, another fucking drink.” Then, wham, into “Lethargy,” then “Beg for a Wheelbarrow.”
I am directly in front of the stage. If I look straight ahead I see Bob’s knees. This has the effect of improving the show 1000%, because Bob can hear everything I say, and when he starts passing out Miller Lites from the band’s cooler I get two. Jim from Michigan is right next to me, and he lights Bob’s cigarette three times.
Bob only has six or seven beers in addition to the Johnny Walker – 12 less than when I saw the band in February. The result is a tighter, better show that makes up for the unexciting setlist. For some reason, the long middle stretch – about 16 songs – is b-sides and new songs that are really hard to get excited about. I mostly pay attention to Doug Gillard’s soloing – even though they skip over his best songs from Mist King Urth and Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, he lets rip amazing, melodic guitar lines on the songs from Earthquake Glue
When the band DOES play the classics – “Echoes Myron,” a fucking incredible “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” – the effect is stunning. Bob holds his trademark kicks and mikeswinging for as long as possible – he’ll kick up a leg and sit there, sweating, as the band pounds the melody.
The set ends at 1:20, and Tobin comes back out to join Bob in Nate’s place. More crowd insanity. Unfortunately the tune of choice is “Hot Freaks,” and I’m still not able to get into it. I actually prefer the shit-hot renditons of “Game of Pricks” and “I Am a Scientist” that come next.
I file out at 1:50, after the encore, walk around Grace Street, and get a ride to the el station from another guy who saw the show. Normally, I hate going out if I’ll have to shell out more money for cabs and wait 30 minutes for late trains. The show was so good, I honestly forgot to worry.