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All photos by Tim Bugbee
“Remember when we did lo-fi songs that are about 90 seconds long? We don’t do that any more.” Robert Pollard laid down the groundwork for the epic progginess of their newest record, Tremblers and Goggles By Rank, a typically inscrutably titled album that won’t be confused with the excesses of Relayer but does allow their typically tightly coiled songs to stretch out and breathe a bit more.
“Who Wants To Go Hunting” is a good example, with the album closer clocking in at over six minutes, the normal time span of three or four brilliantly short pop nuggets that Pollard’s been churning out for decades now. The mid-tempo chugger does evoke some of Pollard’s dog-eared LPs from the 70s, flecks of Gentle Giant and Genesis and even Fairport Convention all in the mix, with a mood swing late in the song powered by Marc Shue’s insistent bass line as Doug Gillard brings his fluid yet powerful guitar in for the coup de grace.
They wouldn’t shy away from playing the new stuff, with half the record showcased and well-received by the assembled flock. “Focus On The Flock” jumped tempos as Pollard lyrics carom from double-breasted suits to pinball machines to rattlesnakes, somehow making it all hang together in a cohesive fashion, while the band uses an instrumental passage that wouldn’t be too far off a Townshend interlude penned for Tommy.
Of course, right after Pollard said they were done with the lo-fi snippets, “We do it if you ask us.” And so an off the cuff/not on the set list “Matter Eater Lad” was a surprise addition to the performance. “Let me tell you something about that song. You can’t perform it bad enough to do it true justice to the original version.” While that’s a pretty funny bit, it also underlies a vital truth to this version of the band. Since longtime writing partner Gillard re-joined forces with a totally revamped lineup (it’s hard to argue against Shue and Kevin March being the best rhythm section GBV’s ever had), Pollard found yet another deep vein of songwriting to tap into, which is an incredible feat when you consider the prodigiously relentless output he’s created to date.
One of the downsides to this immense treasure trove is trying to fit in what songs to play during any given show, and if you polled a thousand GBV fans I’d bet you would get hundreds if not thousands of different song requests.
Pollard himself noted the Sisyphean task assigned to his bandmates, noting that these recent Captain Beefheartian songs are nearly impossible to learn but the band keeps up to the challenge. One solution to cramming as much of the GBV oeuvre into a single night is to eliminate an opening band, so they use their allotment to blast out fifty-plus songs on any given night.
Of the more recent material that’s still sticking around, “Batman Sees The Ball,” “Excited Ones,” “Spanish Coin” and especially “Man Called Blunder” still make the cut but they can only play so many songs and so even relatively recent material has to make way for newer stuff. And familiarity with the torrent of songs is a challenge; I was a little surprised that the crowd response to what I consider of the best of the current crop was met with a bit of a tepid response but it’s a good problem to have.
You’re not gonna leave the building without two earfuls of classics from the past, whether they are the tried and true late to post-Scat era gems like “Tractor Rape Chain” or “Game Of Pricks” or “Echos Myron” or “Your Name Is Wild” (labeled by Pollard as the MTV Buzz Clip days) or the TVT Smash Hits era songs like “Teenage FBI” and the current de facto evening closer of “Glad Girls.” No other band has had such a dizzying ride through their career and there is zero sign of this violent pace slowing down. Long Live Rockathon!