I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Guided By Voices or how many different incarnations of the band perform, but I do know that the first time was at Irving Plaza in 1995. While specifics about the show are a bit blurry, I remember it being something of a revelation, with the songs from the records I already owned (Vampire on Titus and Bee Thousand) finally revealing themselves to me in heroic, fleshed-out forms. Talk about a lightbulb going off, it was more like fireworks in my head.
With GBV mastermind Bob Pollard having reassembled the “classic” line-up earlier this year, it was back to Irving Plaza to say good-bye to 2010 with what would hopefully be an epic night. Taking the stage under the glow of a neon sign assuring us that “the club is open,” Pollard, guitarists Mitch Mitchell and Tobin Sprout, bassist Greg Demos and drummer Kevin Fennell launched into “#2 in the Model Home Series” (from Vampire on Titus), whose refrain of “now the fun begins” seemed achingly apropos. So too with Propeller’s “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox,” which followed. Fifteen years later and with the knowledge that this would probably be one of the last times this line-up played together, the song’s sentiment of “let’s throw the great party today for the rest of our lives” rang a little bittersweet. Any sentimentalism was quickly swept away, though, with the rush of “Echoes Myron.” And like that GBV was off to the races.
I’d seen the classic line-up perform a couple months back in Boston (opting for Beantown’s Paradise Rock Club over New York’s horrid Terminal 5), and this night and that show differed in many ways. First was the setlist, with an influx of Vampire cuts this time around being particularly noticeable. Pollard seemed less formal on this night too, if such a thing is possible, making jokes about deli sandwiches and getting a blowjob at midnight. Perhaps he just feels better acquainted with the Big Apple. Anyway, after “Break Even” (from The Grand Hour EP), “Expecting Brainchild” was another highlight of the performance, which would end up lasting nearly three hours when all was said and done.
Between banter with Mitch Mitchell, who has gone from the guy who wore t-shirts and jeans and just smoked and played guitar to a talkative goofball dressed up in candy-striped overall-shorts, Bob was sure to let the crowd know when midnight was approaching. Telling the audience that there were 14 minutes left, he remarked, “We could play seven songs in that time.” As it was, when the new year finally came, it seemed anti-climatic because, well, the band stopped playing. But once Pollard was sure everyone had a chance to “kiss their old ladies,” the band continued onward, with beer, tequila and nicotine ever fueling their noble quest.
There was easily at least 50 songs played, so keeping track would have been a task unto itself. But in this marathon of hits (“more than the Beatles,” as Bob put it), they included “My Valuable Hunting Knife,” “Kicker of Elves,” “Cut-Out Witch,” “Queen of Cans and Jars,” as well as Sprout-sung gems like “A Good Flying Bird” and “14 Cheerleader Coldfront.” Mitchell even took a turn at the mic to sing “Postal Blowfish.” Bob did his share of scissor kicks, but mostly prowled the stage with bottle and smoke in hand. The length of the performance ensured that there was a constant ebb and flow, multiple peaks followed by coordinating denouements. When things finally began winding down with “Don’t Stop Now” and “Salty Salute” several encores later, one might have thought things were going to get sentimental. But besides Pollard—now a bit tipsy at least—talking about knowing Mitchell since childhood, there was little sappiness. It seemed as if we would be doing this again next week, all of us able to drink and smoke our nights away ad infinitum for years to come, even as Pollard admitted to being hammered as the band finally exited several encores later.