These are strange times we are living in, with the coronavirus having affected nearly every aspect of human existence across the globe. Live music has nearly ceased to exist, effectively cutting off income for not only venues, but musicians who earn very little from their recordings in these days of streaming being the predominant form of music consumption. To try to generate some sort of income and ease the malaise of their fans, many musicians have taken to the internet to perform. While most of these performances have come in the form of intimate acoustic affairs, others have tried to approximate the experience of a real gig to some extent.
This was no doubt the intent behind Guided By Voices’ recent “livestream,” via the Noonchorus platform, in quotes because what the band did was prerecord a performance to be broadcast at specific times depending on location. (Noonchorus allowed users to support their local venue; by using an associated link, 20% of the sale would go to that venue.) The band gathered at The Brightside in its hometown of Dayton, Ohio (although figurehead and singer Bob Pollard is the only member who actually lives there), to play a set together to an empty room. Following some opening footage of the town and the guys drinking backstage, the band launched into “Year of the Hard Hitter” from last year’s Surrender Your Poppy Field. Guitarist Doug Gillard’s hair looked a little longer than usual, but otherwise, they didn’t seem any worse for wear because of the pandemic as they segued into “Volcano,” also from Surrender. Still, the two cuts seemed simply perfunctory as the band blew out some of the cobwebs before getting to “Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking)” from 2004’s Half Smiles of the Decomposed. However, even as the band started firing on all cylinders, there was (of course) something lacking: an audience, and the response that such a song would elicit. Having seen the band in the flesh nearly 20 times, this was eerily sedate by comparison, as GBV shows are always joyous affairs, the crowd singing (and drinking) along with nearly every song.
Naturally, this was to be expected and there was no hope of replicating a GBV live experience for the digital realm. But there was a surprising lack of between-song banter from Pollard, even though he put back a few beers while onstage. I would have at least expected some song introductions, especially for “Keep an Area,” the excellent lead single from the band’s forthcoming album, Mirrored Aztec.
One thing that’s interesting is that with Mirrored Aztec, GBV has now put out the same amount of albums since getting back together in 2010 (the band broke up at the end of 2004) as it did in the first 20 years of its existence. As such, much of the newer material seems superfluous (making it all the more noteworthy when a track like “Keep an Area” stands out so distinctly). This show focused on the aforementioned Surrender Your Poppy Field, as they also included “Cat Beats a Drum” and “Windjammer” in succession (and later “Queen Parking Lot,” “Arthur Has Business Elsewhere,” “Always Gone,” “Physician,” and “Man Called Blunder”). So while “Your Name Is Wild” came early on, it wasn’t until “Twilight Campfighter,” a dozen songs in, that the show bared the resonance of the band’s storied past. Pollard might have felt it too as he lifted a fist into the air, perhaps envisioning his legion of followers.
The GBV live mainstays increased with frequency as the set progressed, with the one-two punch of “Hot Freaks” and “Shocker in Gloomtown” signaling the point in the evening when (during normal times) the throng would have been well-lubricated and raising their beers in unison. As it was, Bob sang with his hands in his pockets and we didn’t get even one microphone twirl. Sure, it must be off-putting singing into the void of a camera lens, but c’mon, fake it a bit or get that bottle of tequila!
Admittedly, Bob did have his moments, like when he commented “not this year” following the line of “There will be no graduation,” during “Glad Girls.” I did my part (read: whisky and picklebacks) at home to try to conjure the spirit of a GBV show, and there were times when I shut my eyes and could almost smell the Miller Lite. But let’s face it, it never will be the same. And it’s probably not realistic to try to charge $25 a pop, especially when you have a potential audience of millions.
Beginning with “Back to the Lake” (the 44th song of the set), the band began a grand finale of sorts that included GBV classics like “Echos Myron,” “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory,” “Game of Pricks,” and “I Am a Scientist.” So it was a bit of a letdown when they ended the show abruptly after “Next Sea Level” off of (what else) Surrender Your Poppy Field. With no chants of G-B-V and no encore to follow, it was a disappointing finish, to say the least. We’ve all faced challenges during the pandemic, and having GBV digitally is better than no GBV at all, but even at two-plus hours this could have been so much more.