Theater of the Living Arts,Philadelphia, PA
September 10, 2004
My first and last GBV show was memorable. But it was not the life-altering, cathartic affair I expected after years of enjoying their records and reading glowing reviews of their live shows. The event certainly had the right ingredients for greatness: a band I love that I had (ashamedly) never seen live, an intimate venue (the Theater of the Living Arts in Philly), and the farewell nostalgia vibe of “the last tour.” I hoped to commemorate this show-for-the-ages by framing the ticket stub!
I planted myself about 10 feet from center stage as part of the sold-out, standing-room-only crowd. My wife (who got her first real taste of GBV during the car ride to the club--an immeasurable error on my part) and two of my GBV-obsessed friends stood next to me, requisite beers in our hands. After a humorous slide show introduction featuring classic photos of the band, GBV blazed onto the stage. Everything sounded and looked like it was going to be perfect. GBV rocked, Pollard was in great voice, and the crowd sang along passionately (even when GBV played tunes from “Half Smiles of the Decomposed”--their new record that was scarcely 2 weeks old). As Pollard vehemently swung his microphone cord like Ohio’s Roger Daltrey, my optimistic predictions looked like they were going to be 100% accurate.
But, by the show’s midpoint, I was a little embarrassed by my anticipatory excitement. GBV muddled through an extended “second” set. (I use this term loosely to mean “the second hour of their three-hour show.”) What began as a cracking hot, near-cohesive sound devolved into a relentless assault of brutally rendered obscure (and similar sounding) songs from the GBV archives. Yeah, and they were hammered too (as expected). Performances many fans would consider drunkenly charming were really just sloppy and off-key (save for Pollard who, defying chemistry, actually sounded clearer and more on-key after chugging many beers and chain-smoking).
My wife bailed when the crowd-surfing began (after what felt like the twentieth song from the Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia album). Last year, I missed GBV’s only Philly stop because it was her birthday, so now we’re even (he typed while looking over his shoulder). I guess the carefully selected, acoustic-focused GBV mix CD I played during the car ride didn’t really prepare her for the GBV live experience! Or maybe she didn’t like guitarist Nate Farley drunkenly leering and giving the audience the finger (both totally excusable--hell, even ENCOURAGED--as long as you’re playing on-key and on-tempo).
The encore was a significant improvement, including touchstones like “Glad Girls,” “Game of Pricks,” and local favorite “Echos Myron” (“Echos Myron like a siren with endurance like the Liberty Bell!”) but it wasn’t enough to lift my dulled spirits. I emerged from the venue physically and auditorily exhausted.
I realize that, in striving to be an unbiased critic, “it wasn’t as good as the fans said it would be” isn’t an objective comment. And when I call parts of the set list “obscure,” that’s not quite fair either. “The Key Losers,” “Big School,” or “Running Off With the Fun City Girls” are also obscure titles, but I would have been thrilled to hear them. In short, this show, like their records, swung unexpectedly from joyous to tedious (depending on your taste). Judging by the crowd’s reaction, the octave-jumping, heart-catching melodies of “Tractor Rape Chain” and “Teenage FBI” should have been the order of the day. But a significant portion of the audience enjoyed (and/or endured) the show until the last chord--1:20 AM. Just enough time to hit a bar on South Street before last call and compare notes on the GBV catalogue and when Pollard will put out his next solo record.
You write me out, I reappearFor my part, I nurse my ringing ears and take consolation in the fact that GBV’s recorded output is (for the most part) tremendously rewarding (especially when you have the benefit of the fast-forward button). Plus they have released so many titles (see http://gbvdb.com for reference) that it’s nearly impossible to have heard everything. I’ve learned that the thrill I felt the first time I heard “Alien Lanes” probably won’t be matched (not even by GBV’s live show). But their inspired, massive catalogue will keep me hooked long after the electrifying conclusion.