Last night I saw Guided by Voices at Irving Plaza, on the first night of their last-ever trip to New York City. It was, in a word, sublime--one of the best shows I've ever seen, and easily the finest of the seven or eight times I've seen GbV over the last ten years. The set featured probably two dozen chestnuts from deep in the back catalogue--B-sides from forgotten 12-inch releases, outtakes from the early 1990s, songs from the days when the band would only press 500 copies of their records because nobody else was interested, or even aware of them. By last night, every track had singers-along, ecstatic obscurists, feeling like their love for this band was somehow validated by five guys who, clearly, are first and foremost fans themselves. It was as if they'd programmed their entire catalogue--a matter of hundreds and hundreds of songs from the incredibly prolific Robert Pollard--into a collective iTunes, and the god of random song selection was munificent indeed...
Few bands have ever built, much less maintained, the sort of close, almost co-dependent relationship Guided by Voices has with its fans. Maybe this is because they never got too big--certainly not big enough to alienate the true believers and draw in the casual fans in large numbers, as happened with U2 and REM and some of the other groups I loved as a wee lad in suburban Philadelphia almost 20 years ago. They did get big enough to easily sell out venues like Irving Plaza, and raised a flag for the "low-fi" and indie rock movements with, I'd guess, a few hundred thousand avid fans around the world. But I doubt too many teenagers or pop-radio listeners are counted among them: at the show last night I probably was among the younger half of the audience, which doesn't happen too often at age 31.
Great rock music has a sort of unique ability to be both intensely personal and enhanced by its being shared: think of Springsteen, Dylan, the Who, U2, the Velvet Underground, probably any band with a fanatical core following regardless of how big they eventually got. GbV had this in spades, with dozens of songs that root the listener (or at least this listener) to one moment or period in his life while remaining immediate in the here and now. In the case of Guided by Voices, there's something else too: as I said to Annie during one of the songs last night, in some better, alternative universe they really would be the most famous and popular band in the world. It's as if they took the direction music was headed in the late 1960s, when brilliant and passionate songwriting was rewarded with commercial success, and projected it forward three or four decades. Songs like "My Impression Now"--the featured track on a barely-noticed EP from 1993 titled "Fast Japanese Spin Cycle"--have more hooks and charm and power than anything the average corporate rock band could come up with in 20 years of effort.
All that said, I am somewhat glad they're hanging it up. Pollard is 47, and though he's still manifestly able to play for three hours, pounding beers and harder stuff all the while, jumping around stage and swinging his mic like Roger Daltrey on speed, he recognizes that it's best to end the band at the top of its game rather than coasting on past accomplishments into a long period of decline, simulating rock for a paycheck. GbV's final album, "Half Smiles of the Decomposed," is probably their best effort since the mid-90s, when they seemed to crank out a classic every year, and it was fitting that last night's marathon show featured both a half-dozen songs from that last release and, I think, six or seven from the band's 1994 masterpiece, "Bee Thousand."
Here's wishing a Drinker's Peace, and many more fruitful years of music, to Bob and his band.