Nine years ago New York Press rock critic John Strausbaugh wrote a fairly effective screed about the dangers of hanging on to the rock 'n' roll life too long I agreed with many of his points when I first read the piece, titled Rock 'Til You Drop: The Decline from Rebellion to Nostalgia, but now that I'm in the middle of my fourth decade, and having seen a fair number of older bands not only stay equal to their live shows (Neil Young) but improve upon their recorded legacy (Mission of Burma), I take issue with his basic premise. Hell, if I had known his address I would have dragged him out to see a recent show by Guided By Voices. I saw their "classic lineup" show at the Matador Lost Weekend blowout -- an early show on their current tour -- and they were the best-received act among a fairly incredible lineup of music. One wag put it that the show was so special, GBV needed three days of warm up bands.
Fast forward a month (and incredibly, only less than eight weeks from their initial re-convergence in the practice space, the key 'meat of the order' lineup of Mitch Mitchell, Tobin Sprout, Greg Demos and Kevin Fennell) and the band is on the last weekend of shows of their incredibly successful reunion tour. Not that Pollard needed to prove anything to the world; his recorded output is a legacy that speaks for itself, and anyone who caught the band during their heyday (natch, even the Gillard years which were spectacular in their own right) knows that the seeing the band meant a beery, sweaty, perma-grin kind of evening.
This is the kind of band that induces rabid fans, and though most of the people on the street would stare blankly if you told them about the show, people from Sweden, England, Belgium and other far-flung places flew over to the States to be baptized in the salt and liquor of the evening. Stomping out of the gates with "Striped White Jets" at the Paradise on Nov. 5, the band was the ragged rock 'n' roll juggernaut that the younger generation had heard about but never experienced, and the crowd was a solid mix of youth and veterans. It's a bit bewildering that the band stayed at or below the fringes of the general public's consciousness; take any Beatles or Who fan and strap 'em down in a chair, throw on a random mix of GBV songs on a stereo, toss a six-pack of Miller Lite down their gullet and watch the wig-out begin.
Mitchell had the sparsest guitar set up I'd seen; a single pedal from his Ibanez Iceman to his Marshall amp. Had I taken a closer look, I wouldn't have been surprised to see a single switch on it, an on/off setting for "Rock." (Of course, it was set to the "on" position.) On the far side of the stage, the anti-Mitchell roster position was taken by the sedate Sprout, whose achingly beautiful "Awful Bliss" and "14 Cheerleader Cold Front" showed a poignant counterpart to the balls-out rockers like "Lethargy," "Some Drilling Implied" or "Break Even," with the striped pants and frilly shirt of Demos in constant motion while Pollard did the requisite mic swings and high leg kicks as though he was 20 years younger. Pollard dropped weight, kept his booziness in check, and delivered knockout performance after knockout performance on this tour, and the show at the Paradise was no different.
This was a rock show, plain and simple, just a massed gathering of rabid fans soaking up the drive of "Game Of Pricks" in equal measure to the wounded pathos of "Johnny Appleseed" or the fractured Beatles-esque vignette of "Hey Aardvark." You knew that the big hits like "Tractor Rape Chain" or "I Am A Scientist" were coming, but to hear the keening "Decide Now!" vocal entry of "My Son Cool" or the pure pop brashness and brevity of "Gold Star For Robot Boy" was equally exhilarating. It's a bittersweet feeling to experience the power of this show -- we don't know if the future brings additional live performances from Pollard (outside the just-announced New Year's Eve show at Irving Plaza) -- but it was more than fun while it lasted.