Guided By Voices Return to the Stage in a Spray of Miller Lite and an Avalanche of New Songs

Near the end of Guided by Voices’ beer-drenched, 60-song-plus set at Columbus, Ohio’s Athenaeum Theatre Saturday night, frontman Robert Pollard mused to the audience: “I was born on the stage. I was squirted out on the stage…”

The crowd — a motley crew of locals and super-fans who had crossed the country for the event — roared back, Miller Lite and White Claw soaking all manner of GBV shirts commemorating scores of albums, from 2019’s Zeppelins Over China to 1994 track “Hot Freaks,” off of Bee Thousand. Bob was finally back, and, if the city of Columbus would have only let him, he would have serenaded it all night long.

Pollard’s return to the stage was particularly poignant — as all live music events seem to be these days — since the frontman, who is used to traverse the country busting out three-hour shows, has been rooted in his eternal hometown of Dayton, Ohio, since the pandemic descended. Save for a livestream in July 2020, the self-proclaimed natural-born performer’s audience shrank to his backyard, where friends would assemble — socially distanced of course — to drink beer and bullshit. Saturday, those same friends were in attendance for GBV’s grand return at a venue just 60-odd miles from Pollard’s backyard — from the high school where he is a proud member of the athletic hall of fame, the sports bar that has become a mecca to GBV fans worldwide, and the airfield where grandfather-age fighter jets have inspired many a song.

Before the Miller Lite started flowing — there was a special deal for a literal bucket of five — the Athenaeum Theatre smelled like church; the first floor was still set up for a wedding with white-clothed tables and silver serving trays to keep buffet food piping. The band had upgraded from another venue, according to chatter among Pollard’s pals, because he insisted on a vaccine-only event. Despite the stately molding and marble stairs, though, the show was pure bacchanal from the moment Pollard, guitarists Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr., drummer Kevin March, and bassist Mark Shue took the stage.

The setlist has yet to be uploaded — four separate sheets of paper covered with Pollard’s bold scrawl — and, frankly, I wasn’t really in the mindset to take studious notes, but suffice it to say that the band played across the decades. Notably — as Jason Narducy of Superchunk told me when he popped in to pay his respects — Pollard performed “My Kind of Soldier,” a favorite of friend and collaborator Tommy Keene, who died in 2017. Naturally, GBV busted out their share fan favorites as well, like “Back to the Lake,” “Game of Pricks,” and “Chasing Heather Crazy,” but with several new albums under their belt since GBV last toured, they offered up a nice array of new tunes, too — cuts from Earth Man Blues, Surrender Your Poppy Field, and even the upcoming album (their second of 2021), It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them!

Despite still oiling their hinges after two years off the road, the band fell back into their rhythm early on in the set, Shue’s crazy legs bending and twisting in bright white pants, Gillard and Bare’s fingers flying, and March as precise and driving as ever behind the kit. Pollard kept his famous stage moves to a minimum — he recently acquired a titanium hip — but he did bust out a high-kick or two. And even though he declined to share his Jose Cuervo with the audience — Covid-19 still looms — he doled out the smiles and handshakes like he was still in his backyard with his buddies and his cooler. And maybe that’s because he was, in a way. As he said, he was born on the stage. And for now, at least, he’s home.

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