By Mark Guarino
The dawn of 2005 was the dusk of Guided By Voices, the Dayton, Ohio band that closed the curtains after 21 years of near stardom and indie pop statesmanship. A graying, bearish Robert Pollard was the unpredictable ringleader of the band’s final show New Year’s Eve at Chicago’s Metro. He looked relieved the party was ending but before bumrushing the last fan to the door, he delivered a show representative of why his band was one of the most beloved of the ‘90s underground. Wielding a set list that unfolded like an oceanic map, Pollard and Co. spread 62 songs over a near four hours. He handed fans power pop fireworks (“Glad Girls,” “I am a Tree”) plus, often, the microphone and rounds of free drinks. For a band started as a basement hobby and that accidentally groomed a cult, Guided By Voices was shared by all in its final hours. Any other way would just not feel right.
This was not his band’s finest hour — dry valleys followed exhilarating peaks, alcohol swallowed sobriety — that’s what happens when a full-time bartender is set up onstage with nearby paintbuckets labeled “puke” and “piss” at the ready. This version of Guided By Voices (there have been many) was capable but not particularly remarkable. When Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster sat in for regular Kevin March, spines tightened. Also in the guest rotation were past regulars Matt Sweeney, Tobin Sprout and Jim MacPherson, late of the Breeders.
The group love was second class to the songs. As erratic as Pollard’s road show might have been, his catalog was given a loving send-off. Cobbled from a songbook that makes Bob Dylan look lazy, the show made room for lengthy obsessions (“Skin Parade”), oddities (the song slivers “Hot Freaks,” “Hit”), and rallying anthems (“Huffman Prairie Flying Field,” “Bulldog Skin”). He and the audience sang them all in unison, providing a window into the band’s longevity, however scrappy. Underdog rock phenomenons operate by generating mystery — but with Guided By Voices, the cryptic lyrics and strange nuggets posing as songs are never without a blue collar passion. At their final show, the excitement was over a shared secret and it became boisterous fun.
As the night wore on, Pollard started to embrace his inner Ozzy, his high kicks sagging, microphone twirls infrequent, the excitement of a bandleader translating to tiny hops. He gave it all a 47-year-old roadhorse could humanly give through many beers, shots, cigarettes and a puff or two of a hidden joint. The final encore seemed to shoot the band a second wind as they sped up to make it to the finish, leaving hardly a breath between songs, running through seven in 20 minutes. Before the last, Pollard solemnly announced it would be “The Ballad of Guided By Voices.” That’s the type of joke you make when you end your band — the title was actually “Don’t Stop Now.”
“It’s hard to go away, kids,” Pollard told the audience. Then, unforgettably, he did.