Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER
In a New York Times piece about birding published a few years back, author Brian Kimberling observed insightfully that making a list of bird species identified on any particular day, as birdwatchers do, is “a form of prayer, a thanksgiving for being alive at a certain time and place.” And posting that list online, he went on, “is a 21st-century form of a votive offering.”
Concert setlists are arguably no different. Created by a band to serve the practical purpose of coordinating each member’s participation in the show that night, the paper on which they’re written is transformed into a sort of rare and righteous sacrament the minute an incredible show ends, when fans rush to rescue the often filthy, trampled documents, and customarily and courteously allow the less fortunate souls among their ranks to photograph as secondhand souvenirs. Meanwhile, websites like setlist.fm serve as interactive catalog archives for these lists, a growing collection of holy digital votives for the live music zealot.
Not many bands honor this live music tradition quite like Guided By Voices do.
Setlists the size of newspaper pages are taped to the Underground Arts stage, featuring the hand-scrawled indices of some 60 song titles through which Robert Pollard and his indie-rock accomplices would make their way on Friday night, without much pause. Shortly after the show began, Pollard boasted about his own prolific oeuvre of over 100 releases since his career began in the early ‘80s, over three-and-a-half decades ago. “That’s more than Neil Young did,” he noted.
More is more, with these guys. All of that material allows for shows traditionally featuring dozens of songs sung by Pollard, guitarless and free to engage with a stage lip crowded with frenetic fanatics reaching for the man. At age 60, now, a full head of thick white hair distinguishes his elder-statesman-of-canonical-college-rock look, like a later-career Spencer Tracy — but punk-er. He shares his liquor and his beer, provokes and plays to the congregation’s demands, and drinks his drink. He tells stories, like the one about a guy who once asked him how he remembers all the words to all that music. “Not only that,” Pollard responded rhetorically, “but how do you remember all the words when you’re drunk — and with an appropriate degree of theatricality?”
The fever pitch crescendoed from high to higher throughout, and the chants of “GEE BEE VEE” demanding the band’s initial emergence at 9:30 resumed for their encore, too, some three hours later. Pollard and co. swept the front row for handshakes, as I perched on the tips of my toes, flattening myself against a structural column on the side of the stage to avoid getting flattened on the floor by the forward fifth of a sold-out crowd straining for a high-five, a spare guitar pick, or a precious copy of that monster setlist/prayer document: we were all alive at a certain place and time, and we rocked hard the entire night. And shit yeah, it’s cool! Or something like that. — JOSH PELTA-HELLER