When a double album seems too short, you’ve got something.
The first true Guided By Voices live album is an essential purchase for fans, and a good starting point for the curious.
There is a point in most old-growth artists careers when the release of new records slows to a trickle or stops. The new records either fade from relevance almost immediately, or never achieve it, and the band enters a kind of perpetual Greatest Hits victory lap existence on tour. Fans still come out to see the legends, but the set lists are unvaryingly composed of the crowd pleasers that everyone knows. Live albums released in such a phase are lackluster cash grabs in most cases, competently rendered but ultimately uninteresting as listening experiences.
By all rights, Guided By Voices ought to be smack dab in the middle of this. We are 25 years past the breakthrough underground salad years, and just short of the twentieth anniversary of the band’s major label phase. If Robert Pollard were guilty of rounding up the posse to play Propeller and Bee Thousand live every couple of years, he could be forgiven. By all the laws of statistics, art, and business, Guided By Voices should not rock. But they do. Harder than ever before.
Pollard’s six album classic lineup reunion catalog could have sufficed for a conclusion, the pure solo follow up Please Be Honest would have been a suitable epitaph. Instead, Pollard assembled a new and superior lineup and went on a rampage. August By Cake and How Do You Spell Heaven showcased a band that boasted five members who were all capable musicians, singers, and songwriters. The albums speak for themselves, equal to anything in the bands back catalog and superior to most of it. This is a band renewed. Gene Simmon’s plan to keep KISS going with new members after he and Paul retire? This band could do it. This band could carry the standard when Bob retires, and carry it with credibility.
Thus, the timing for the band’s first true live recording is very auspicious. Yes, this is the first actual official live record. We had bootlegs of varying quality in both recording and performance, and a mixed-bag disc of live songs on the Hardcore UFOs box set. We have it in hand. Now we discuss.
Very, very high quality sound. Recording and mixing have both been masterfully executed: Ogre’s Trumpet surpasses most of the GBV studio releases and can bear comparison with the best of the best live recordings you know. Black Sabbath spent a million dollars (in 80s dollars!) on Live Evil. The sound on this album is comparable. There are nuances to a live show. The grit and harmonics with the guitar amps, the character of the drum kit, the grain of the singers voice. All of this is clearly audible. The good and the bad are all on display. Every bit of wear and tear in Pollard’s voice, every bit of feedback, the occasional awkward note or voicing of a guitar. It’s all here. It’s raw and it’s real, and the sound quality puts it all out there for the ear. No autotune, no studio fixes. That wouldn’t be very rock and roll, would it?And this is a Rock album.
This record is drawn from a single gig in New Jersey on the How Do You Spell Heaven tour. Tight. That’s the best word. Tighter than this band has ever been. I’ve seen them live four times. There wasn’t a clinker in the bunch. But this album reveals a band that is better live than any previous incarnation. That’s not an insult to anyone who has gone before. These guys are simply perfect together, a rare alignment that Pollard has spent decades seeking. All of the shakeups, the long list of members stretching back to the eighties, all of it comes to fruition right here. These boys rock like The Who used to rock back in the early 70s. This is a band that is not only well-rehearsed and highly talented, they are the right group of bandmates at the right time. This is a GBV record. And Robert Pollard is infamous for his drunken antics onstage, to the point where some shows are diminished or even ruined altogether. He may not be George Jones, but he has a well-deserved rep.
Yes, he’s clearly been drinking on a good handful of the tracks. For the casual listener, this may be off-putting. For the veteran fan, this is a well-known facet of any GBV live show. I’ve seen him go completely ass-backwards into the drumkit and knock it over. He’s not that hammered here. On a few tracks there is some mild slurring, in places he sounds drowsy. Bob drinks in concert: this would not be an honest recording if it didn’t depict this. On this album, it’s an organic part of the whole, as integral to the vocal performance as the growl of the overdriven amps are to Bare and Gillard’s guitar sounds.
This is a great band captured on a great night. They are starting to sell out shows again. It’s not hard to see why. On any given night, this band could be the best live act in the world.
The Set List
The selection of songs reflects a band that has new things to say. A dozen of the tracks are from August By Cake and How Do You Spell Heaven. Another twelve are drawn from the back catalog. A cover of The Monkees Saturday’s Child acts as the tiebreaker. Let’s run down by sides, with some observations and notations.
Pearly Gates Smoke Machine
Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft
5 Degrees On The Inside
The slow, stately Pearly Gates draws us in, and the band hits the gas with Paper Cutz. Even on the more laid back Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft, this is a band that turns every song it touches into a fist-pumping anthem. (Compare this version with the live solo version on Moon. Very different animals.) We have to wait until we hit the end of the side to hear one of the classics, and when we do, it’s revelatory. Motor Away we’ve heard many times before, both studio and live. This version is a standout, with bigger guitars and better drums than any version before. Side 1 focuses heavily on How Do You Spell Heaven, and offers ample evidence that this is not a band focused on reliving past glories.
Cut Out Witch
I Am A Tree
Your Name Is Wild
The Ticket Who Rallied
This side throws us into a mixed bag of material. We have material from the current lineup, the classic lineup, the major label lineup, and a side project. All of it flows together naturally. This side is all velocity, a half dozen tracks of pure classic rock.
I Am A Scientist
Gold Star For Robot Boy
Lord Of Overstock
The Birthday Democrats
Three more tracks from How Do You Spell Heaven, a sleeper from Under The Bushes, Under The Stars, and two of the biggest surprises on the album. That Bee Thousand is well represented on this record with five tracks scattered across the second half is not a shocker. These are the biggest of the bands big songs, the songs fans expect to hear live when they put their money down. The surprise here is that these versions just may become your go-to versions of these classics. Better recording quality, better guitars, and better drums. Kevin March isn’t just good on this album, he’s Keith-freakin’-Moon-reborn good, and probably the most potent secret weapon Bob Pollard ever had. The nigh-relentless energy is mitigated here the more midtempo Steppenwolf Mausoleum and Lord of Overstock.
Tractor Rape Chain
Game Of Pricks
Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory
How Do You Spell Heaven
As we hit the end of the record (and the show) the hits become more prominent. As noted above, the cuts from Bee Thousand benefit immensely from having a superior lineup performing them and much higher audio fidelity. Saturday’s Child is a welcome anomaly. The Monkees are still criminally underrated and the band hammers this one with enough power that if you didn’t know it was a cover, you’d assume Pollard wrote it on one of his many side projects or solo records. Side 4 wraps up with a pretty slurry Glad Girls and a more focused vocal on How Do You Spell Heaven. After the music fades and the crowd sounds are allowed to really be heard, it becomes apparent that the arena destroying set you just listened to was delivered to a fairly small crowd in a fairly small space. Here is a band that will show up and give 110% for the largest crowd, or the smallest, anytime, anywhere. They love rock and roll and they are rock and roll. And as the last side fades to the familiar chant of GBV, GBV, GBV you find yourself wishing that the record was longer. This double LP burns like a firecracker fuse and leaves you wanting more.
The live record is a genre with its own rules and standards of greatness. Pollard is a professor emeritus of all things rock and roll, he chose to hold out on a live LP for good reasons. This album does for GBV what Alive did for KISS, At Budokan did for Cheap Trick, and Live At Leeds did for The Who–captured the band live at the peak of their live prowess and preserved it.
Limited to just one thousand copies each of vinyl and compact disc issues, a puzzling choice given the potentially wide appeal this record might have as the new lineup begins pulling in new fans. But it is what it is: if you think you want it you better move quick.
Before it’s gone, like a thrown Keith Moon drumstick from 1974.