Ben McShane on
It was in the spring of last year when the legendary frontman for Guided by Voices, Robert Pollard, told the world he’d received an omen: His doctor had dreamed that Guided by Voices played 100 songs for $100. It was to be so, a New Year’s Eve mega-set at the Teragram Ballroom, Guided by Voices’ adopted home venue in Los Angeles. The show sold out swiftly.
One hundred songs may seem like a lot, but comparatively, it isn’t! Bob Pollard and his various musical projects have released 108 LPs in all. Twenty-nine of those are Guided by Voices albums, 13 since the band reunited nine years ago. In fact, the 62-year-old Pollard has released 69 LPs since 2003, when Sufjan Stevens first threatened to record a concept album for every state in the union. Not even counting EPs, 7-inches, and rarities … if Bob wanted to play one song for every record, he’d need to leave about 7% of his LPs out. Never mind covers.
To achieve this mad endeavor, the Teragram Ballroom opened doors at 7 p.m. with the band — no opening act this time — scheduled for 8 p.m. on the dot. A few hundred attendees had lined up before open. At the merch table, you could pay $35 to receive a poster of the setlist, not yet revealed, that would be shipped to buyers later this month.
The show was a slow burn; neither the petulant slobberknockers of the classic lineup reunion shows from this decade’s beginning nor the technical sorcery of the current lineup’s earlier outings. Guided by Voices paced themselves, in both ferocity and refreshment, as did the adherents who paid $100 for the privilege of witnessing it. They came from San Diego, Kansas, Virginia and Canada. The bars seemed to sell briskly, but it never took more than a song to get a drink they never ran out of booze.
The set-list was surprisingly concise. Zero covers, only one side-project and three Robert Pollard solo songs. Sixty-four songs from the band’s first run, 32 post-2010 reunion.
What follows is one adventurer’s accounting of this most ill-advised event, the details of which were scribbled in the dark, on parchment softened with sweat and fermented grain. Not a journalist’s documentation, but hazy memories and ink-scratchings passed through a hallway of shatterproof glass.
T-Minus 1 Hour 45 Minutes Before The Show – I am in a Lyft to the North Hollywood Metro Station, my liver fortified with $20 of Taco Bell. My driver looks like a Chinese Robert Smith. Is it a sign there may be a Cure cover in the set?
T-Minus 1 Hour Before The Show – The Club Is Open! The line to get in immediately reconstitutes itself as a line to the merch table. It stretches all the way back to the bar, which is convenient, but triggers everyone with anxiety. Word is the band will start right on time and no one wants to miss it for a T-shirt.
8:15 p.m. Pacific Standard Time – Only fifteen minutes late, Guided by Voices takes the stage. They kick it off with “Street Party,” a new one. In my field of vision, I can see five Brian Posehn doppelgängers, three Adam Savages and a Todd Louiso who may or may not actually be Todd Louiso. Also, many Guided by Voices fans vape now. Sad.
Minute 4 – Bob Pollard threatens to stop at 100 songs. “No encore!” We’ll see about that.
Minute 18 – Uncle Bob has not even had a beer yet. Weird. They launch into “Twilight Campfighter,” a real treat; GBV has not played it in Los Angeles since they originally broke up. At the end of the song, Bob finally pops his first on-stage beer of the night. Looks like the band is drinking bottled Miller Lite tonight.
Minute 30 – We’re 15 songs in and averaging two minutes a song. When I go back to the bar for more beer, I see a dad and his 6-year-old son in a Billy Idol shirt at the merch table. Know hope.
Minute 37 – Just before kicking off “Chasing Heather Crazy,” Bob takes his first hit off his trusty handle of Jose Cuervo. The band will drink through a cooler of beer tonight, but the liquid line on this bottle is the true indicator of Pollard’s sobriety.
Minute 42 – Bob picks up a tambourine for the first time. For being nearly three quarters of an hour deep into a Guided by Voices set, the band seems depressingly sober.
Minute 43 – Song No. 20 is “A Salty Salute,” which marks the beginning of the real show earnest. They chase it down with “Hot Freaks,” and now Uncle Bob is buzzing.
Minute 55 – More hits from “Bee Thousand,” this time “Tractor Rape Chain” and strangers are hugging. The crowd knew the live version has alternate harmonies at the end and sang along in accordance.
Hour 1 and 4 Minutes – Bob Pollard, live at the Improv: “100 songs. Do I look like a masochist? Do I look like J. Mascis? J. Mascis is my friend. You know who is not? [Fellow Dayton-native and Dinosaur Jr. founding member] Lou Barlow.” The crowd cackles. Robert Pollard has been publicly feuding with Barlow for years. No one I talk to seems to know exactly why.
Hour 1 and 9 Minutes – “Jane of the Waking Universe” is a crowd-favorite? Who knew? With Doug Gillard in this lineup, “Mag Earwig” tracks always sound terrific.
Hour 1 and 24 Minutes – We’re 36 songs deep into the set, the band is kicking everyone’s teeth in with “Exit Flagger” when the first friendly-fire splash of beer pours down my shirt. The crowd is getting sloppy now.
Hour 1 and 26 Minutes – Oh wow, here’s a gem: “She Wants to Know,” from the first GBV EP “Forever Since Breakfast.” “That’s the slowest song in the set,” Uncle Bob proclaims. “A corny-ass song.” He’s still so … sober! I am pretty sure he’s nursing the same beer he first drank from over an hour ago. What is going on here? Did Bob join The Program?
Hour 1 and 30 Minutes – It feels like an Irish wake during a crowd-croon-along of “Drinkers Peace,” and just before jumping into “Space Gun,” 90 minutes into the set, Bob finally finishes the first beer of the night.
Hour 1 and 35 Minutes – The Cuervo bottle is just about half-gone when Bob takes his last swig of the night before passing it on to the front row. The bottle makes its rounds amongst the most devoted fans. What a gift!
Hour 1 and 49 Minutes – Bob pays compliment to Doug Gillard and goes into their collar track “And I Don’t” (So Now I Do)” from “Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department.” To this point it has been The Bob Pollard Show and this song is the first time they felt like a band and not Bob’s mendicant peons.
Hour 2 and 3 Minutes – Bob has lost count on the set list and tells us he is “Limiting my alcohol out-take. I mean intake. I intake alcohol,” before polishing off that second beer. The liquid level in his Cuervo bottle has plummeted. Girlfriends in the crowd are crossing their arms now. Some are heading for the exits.
Hour 2 and 6 Minutes – Three minutes later, Pollard finishes his third beer. That escalated quickly. Bobby Bare Jr. is also in a well-preserved stupor. Oddly, in some sort of psychic symbiotic bond, it seems the more Bare Jr. drinks, the perkier Doug Gillard becomes.
Hour 2 and 17 Minutes – Well into his fourth beer, Bob wears the mic like a chain and plays air guitar while the rest of his band is plays “Very Second,” a new one from their latest LP, “Sweating the Plague.” Then, during “My Son Cool,” he starts emptying the band’s beer cooler into the hands of fans.
Hour 2 and 21 Minutes – There are now more melted faces than crushed beer cans on the floor because the quintessential Doug Gillard jam “I Am a Tree” has been performed, and it remains the undisputed, undefeated champion of the Guided by Voices discography when played live. The whole band is sparking-off now. It’s getting really damn good.
Hour 2 and 28 Minutes – We’re 60 songs into the set when GBV absolutely rips “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” and with 1 hour 17 minutes until midnight, that means if they keep up this pace, there will be about 10 songs of the 100-song set played in the year 2020, if they didn’t take an intermission. They finish the song by downshifting into a slow-tempo, shambling version of the “Bee Thousand” classic and it almost sounds like dream pop. I need a studio recording of this.
Hour 2 and 32 Minutes – Bob is slow-chanting “Come back to me, my Zodiac companion, come back to me …” as he scans the room looking for … something. “My Zodiac Companion” is a newer song, but it feels like Bob is pleading for the return of a less turbulent, simpler time of the past. Which is honestly why anyone gets sauced at a Guided by Voices show.
Hour 2 and 37 Minutes – Bob finishes another beer, unclear if it was the end of his fourth, or if he stole bassist Mark Shue’s.* Someone next to me has a plate of French fries. Where did she get fries?!
Hour 2 and 48 Minutes – We are 67 songs into the set, two-thirds the way through, when I realize there is not going to be an intermission. Right now they’re playing “Demons Are Real” and this set is descending into psych-rock effluvia. The floor feels like Gorilla Glue. I hate the people standing next to me. The last time I felt like this about someone next to me at a concert, I jammed my thumb into the kidney of a roided-out maniac tripping balls while Pavement played “Unfair.” My pen is a sharp implement. I keep clicking it. In. And out. In. And out. In. And out …
Hour 2 and 53 Minutes – Almost three hours of this cruel pleasure and Kevin March’s pounding drum hits during “Cheap Buttons” makes my sinuses burp. Bob is on beer No. 5 or 6 now.
Hour 2 and 56 Minutes – The band plays “Peep Hole” and now I am arm-in-arm with the assholes standing next to me. I love these guys. They’re the best.
Hour 2 and 58 Minutes – I work my way back to the bar while GBV trudges through “Matter Eater Lad,” an obscure GBV tribute to an even more obscure DC Comics super-hero co-created by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. The audio engineer seems to have resigned himself to his fate. Almost no one I pass by looks happy. In the back room bar, a table of women are slumped over, eyes permanently rolled back, checking the time and massaging their own necks. The merch table tells me they’ve sold about 125 setlist posters so far.
Hour 3 and 12 Minutes – Bob tells the crowd he saw an original pressing of “Universal Truths and Cycles” at Amoeba for $50 today. He owns three copies himself, but seven original “Propellers.” (Only about 500 were pressed on the first run; it’s a prize possession for devoted fans.) Then the band eases into “Back to the Lake” and the mood in the room starts to turn up again. Only about a half-hour until with midnight, 23 songs to go. We’re in the home stretch.
Hour 3 and 17 Minutes – Derek Young, the famed builder of legendary combat robot Complete Control, is at this show. That tracks.
Hour 3 and 22 Minutes – It’s almost 20 minutes to midnight when I realize I have not seen a single person here with 2020 novelty goggles on. This also tracks.
Hour 3 and 29 Minutes – There’s 18 songs left to play and tons of set-list standbys haven’t been played. I count …
14 Cheerleader Cold Front
Buzzards and Dreadful Crows
Everywhere With Helicopter
Game of Pricks
Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory
I Am A Scientist
Official Iron Man Rally Song
Smothered In Hugs
Striped White Jets
Watch Me Jumpstart
Hour 3 and 30 Minutes – Ah, there’s “Official Iron Man Rally Song.” I am pretty sure Bobby Bare Jr. has lapped Bob Pollard on beer count. I wonder if Bob will remember to do the New Year’s Eve countdown.
Hour 3 and 45 Minutes – Bob remembered to do the countdown! Precious few in the Teragram have someone to kiss at midnight, but someone (Sarah Zade-Pollard, presumably) comes on stage to kiss Uncle Bob on the cheek. “This is the longest show I’ve ever played,” he pants. It feels like it.
Hour 3 and 58 Minutes – The band plays “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” and “Smothered In Hugs” back-to-back, and the audio engineer is back on his game.
Hour 4 and 10 Minutes – It feels like about 90% of the crowd is still here. I am sobbing during “I Am A Scientist.” Not sure if it’s the pain in my feet, my knees, or my heart.
Hour 4 and 17 Minutes – Song 100. “Glad Girls,” a real bop. It’s only 12:32 a.m. There’s still time for an encore!
Hour 4 and 20 minutes – House lights up. Uncle Bob kept his word and there will be no encore on this long, joyous night. Of course, GBV played for 4 hours and 20 minutes. Always the numerologist, that crafty Bob Pollard is. This was the damnedest performance of live music athleticism I have ever seen. Let’s never do it again. The Club Is Now Closed for Maintenance.
Ben McShane is a Los Angeles-based television producer, a reformed pop culture blogger and occasional contributor to Buzz Bands LA. There is nobody else on the planet we’d rather have had at this show.
* Correction: An early version of this review misstated bassist Mark Shue’s first name.