Guided By Voices at London’s Village Underground: A performance of peerless brilliance

The cult Ohio band played their first UK shows for over 15 years this week

With the exception of a few years off in the noughties, as well as a couple earlier this decade, Bob Pollard has been doing this shit for almost forty years now. Within that time he’s written thousands of songs: a great many of them for his solo works (one of them, The Beatles-esque ‘I’m A Strong Lion’, even gets an airing tonight), a bunch for the myriad of side projects he’s been involved in (all of which demonstrate a genius for coming up with band names, The Moping Swans being perhaps the best of the bunch). But most of the songs that Bob Pollard has written have been for Guided By Voices, the band he formed in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio in 1983.

Much like The Fall’s Mark E Smith or the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, Bob Pollard is a workaholic. Guided By Voices are now twenty-six albums strong; they’ve released two albums already this year! Their music can loosely be described as indie rock, the sort that dominated the ancillary stages of Reading Festival in the early nineties. The type that once swelled the playlists of college radio stations in the USA. A brand of indie rock dressed in flannel and Converse. Never as popular as Nirvana. Not as influential in their time as the Pixies. Even weirder than Pavement. Much more prolific than any of their peers. The very definition of cult band. And yet it’s hard not to think of what perhaps might have been.

Guided By Voices
Guided By Voices (Picture: Tony Bartolo)

Truth be told, with a bit of editing, Guided By Voices could have been enormous; they’re a band as influenced by the British Invasion groups of the mid-sixties as they are raw slacker noise. Case in point; they end tonight’s sweatbox performance with a ferocious cover of The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’. These are songs written in the shadow of The Kinks, The Stones, even The Yardbirds. It’s just they all last two minutes (if that) and are called things like ‘Matter Eater Lad’ and ‘Tractor Rape Chain’. Nevertheless, this, their second show in England in 16 years (the night prior, also at The Village Underground, being the first) is a performance of peerless brilliance, received with religious fervour. What might have been isn’t a thought that appears to be on the minds of many people in this room.

Pollard is 61 now. He looks it. His curly hair is now the colour of dirty snow. What he doesn’t do is act it; there’s little breathlessness throughout a set that lasts two and a half-hours and encompasses fifty-four songs. There’s a bit of chatter – Pollard was for many years a schoolteacher. It shows. Pollard does at one point, however, tell the sold-out crowd he doesn’t think he can do this shit forever. This isn’t what the crowd want to hear. They respond with chants of “GbV!” The room becomes more akin to a European football fixture than an indie rock concert. Pollard smiles. Bends down to speak to the front row. He assures them he thinks the shit can go on “a bit longer”. The cheer that ensues is the loudest of the night.

It’s ran close by the setlist’s inclusion of ‘Jane Of The Waking Universe’. By ‘Game Of Pricks’. By – come the encore – ‘I Am A Tree’. Pollard, and this new incarnation of Guided By Voices he assembled in 2016, rattle off fizzy melodic gems like they’ve commandeered a Gatling gun. It is the most impressive display of songwriting prowess anyone lucky enough to catch it will see all year long. How long Bob Pollard can do this shit only he knows, but a world without Guided By Voices is a world that feels ugly and grey. Those thoughts of what could have been do linger. The idea that these songs could have been heard and enjoyed by more people does rankle. But nothing seems more important than the adoration shown by the crowd that are in that cult, and who just witnessed a masterclass in rock ‘n roll.

Nobody here tonight doesn’t hope that this shit will go on forever.