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Guided by Spirits
By Kirsten Ferguson

Guided by Voices
Pearl Street Nightclub, Northampton, Mass., April 23

Robert Pollard walked on stage at Pearl Street last Friday night with a Miller Lite in one hand and a piece of paper in the other. He held up the poster-sized sheet to the packed crowd. It was Guided by Voices’ set list, written in small lettering that filled two whole columns. There were more than 40 songs on there. The audience cheered. “I drank a little too much of this shit last night,” Pollard then announced, waving a bottle of Jose Cuervo. The tequila, and the beer, would be the band’s downfall by the end of the night. Although they may drink to oblivion during their shows, the Dayton, Ohio, band also are known for their generous sets. In fact, they sometimes don’t leave the stage unless forced to (more on that later).

There was something we didn’t know at the time, which may have been a factor in the tequila blowout: GBV announced their breakup the next night at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. There were clues at the Pearl Street show. Pollard made a cryptic reference to GBV’s “final tour.” Guitarist Nate Farley, in a state of abject drunkenness by the end, clung to bassist Chris Slusarenko like an old friend he would never see again. And Pollard, though he still remains the most personable of rock singers, the man with the greatest fan rapport in music, is veering toward self-caricature these days. When the 46-year-old singer was in full “Uncle Bob” mode onstage, referring to his fans as “kids,” giving lessons on how to drink beer from a bottle (like playing a trumpet), windmilling the microphone and growing increasingly drunk while telling one funny story after another, you realized that in a movie about Bob Pollard’s life, the actor who could best capture all the exaggerated mannerisms and drunken, comic interludes just might be Bill Murray.

The garage-sale pants didn’t help. “I look like Woody Harrelson in Kingpin,” Pollard cracked, fingering his green-and-pink plaid trousers. Part of the pleasure of GBV is this contradiction. The rock-star-aping singer, who relates to the kids because he doesn’t try to be like them, writes songs in stark contrast to the persona: highly literate, serious in artistic intent. And inexhaustible. It has become no longer possible for the average fan to keep up with Pollard’s endless discography of GBV songs and solo albums. In 2003 alone, the band’s output comprised a full-length studio album, a best-of collection, a box set, a 7-inch single and two EPs. In addition, Pollard released a solo album and an LP with 1980s art-rock group Phantom Tollbooth.

“As the night goes on, we’ll get increasingly inebriated and play some old songs for you,” Pollard promised before beginning a set that drew heavily from his forthcoming solo double album, Fiction Man, and from GBV’s upcoming August release, Half Smiles of the Decomposed, which will be their last if the band’s official statement is to be believed. Brand-new GBV material can be hard to grasp in a live setting, since Pollard’s melodies take time to sink in. His endlessly creative, free-association lyrics (“You’re gonna fuck up my makeup/You’re gonna make up my fuckup” from the new “Sleepover Jack”) can also be lost in the din of the band’s live-rock sound. But the crowd responded with hearty cheers to each new track. “You guys are better than Boston,” Pollard said, congratulating the crowd for hailing from the same town as indie-rock god J Mascis, who lurked about the club in a knee-length camouflage raincoat. “I’m moving here,” Pollard said at one point. “Do you want me?”

GBV barreled through more than an hour’s worth of never-before heard tracks, throwing in some tunes from the group’s last two or three albums. For longtime fans, it may have been new-song overload. However, GBV eventually reached the old-classics portion of the set, with fan favorites like “Shocker in Gloomtown,” “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows” and “Cut-out Witch.” Pollard did an amazing Bon Scott impression on ACDC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie.” Then the effects of the night’s tequila drinking started to kick in. Only guitarist Doug Gillard, who doesn’t speak but always exudes professionalism, and drummer Kevin March retained their wits. The inebriation made “Drinker’s Peace,” which may be one of the best songs ever written about alcohol dependency, especially poignant. A blurry Pollard sang: “I get a contact buzz/Can’t remember what the problem was/I find it hard to even care/Life was too real till you got there.”

Farley was hit hardest by the “make pain go bye” juice, as Pollard called it. He was standing, slapping at his guitar strings, then lying on the stage, then standing, then clutching the bassist, then falling into the crowd. (Standing in the first row, I got cracked on the head by Farley’s wayward guitar. He apologized, profusely.) Broken glass littered the stage. Slusarenko spit tequila into the mouth of a female fan and then sprayed beer everywhere. “This is the last song,” Pollard announced before starting “I Am a Scientist.” Pearl Street staff made adamant throat-slitting gestures from the side of the stage, trying to halt the show. Farley flashed them the middle finger. Club staff responded by cutting Pollard’s mic. Pollard tried all the mics on stage, and finding them all dead, walked off. It was almost 1 AM, when the town’s rock-show curfew kicks in, but the guy should have been able to finish his final song.

“That’s the thing about Guided by Voices,” my friend lamented on the way out. “They always save their best songs for last, but by then they’re too drunk to play them.”

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