21 Years. Dozens of band members. Hundreds of gigs. Thousands of songs. Millions of grateful fans - and almost as many beers. With the release of 2005's Half Smiles of the Decomposed, guiding Guided by Voices guru Bob Pollard announced that it was all over. After over two decades of the creative club being "open", it was time to pull in the sonic shingle and put the band to bed. He would still continue on as a solo artist, but the notion of Guided by Voices, the GROUP, would merely be a wistful memory in the musical madman's memory. Tour dates were announced, with the final show taking place in Chicago on New Years Eve, 2004. Thanks to Plexifilms, we now have a permanent record of the last performance of one of the great unheralded musical acts of the rock era.
Let's get a few caveats out of the way right up front. This is NOT The Last Waltz. Martin Scorcese's film of The Band's unbelievable swansong has nothing to worry about from this genial, jumbled mess. Nor are we witnessing another Stop Making Sense. Jonathan Demme's deconstruction of the Talking Heads as performance artists turned uptight rhythm aces will live on longer as a work of cinema than this souvenir of a substrata cult band. The more than middle-aged schoolteacher turn cock rocker Bob Pollard will not be stealing 'frontman of the year' awards any time soon from the bands he looks to as influences. Roger Daltry, Mick Jagger, Peter Gabriel and his main songwriting influence, the late great John Winston Ono Lennon, are safe and secure in their aural place.
No, what The Electrifying Conclusion resembles is that last drunken toast at the ultimate family reunion, that schnapps-fueled stag party before your best friend walks down the aisle, or the balls-out beer and bourbon blowout one has before men are shipped off to war. It's a liquor-laced farce, a rock show in name only. Instead, the blissfully blotto Bob Pollard is taking the stage one final time to give the GBV devotees a last glimpse of his infamous booze-based bravado. Pollard is unquestionably one of the few genuine geniuses of the pop song - you can't listen to any of the Voices mammoth catalog and not catch yourself caught up in the chorus, or vexed by a verse. But he also represents a kind of pure pronouncement of the punk DIY movement. Here is a man who taught fourth grade, wanted to be a rock star, and then went about making that vision come true. He dreamt up names for his imaginary groups and derived song titles and playlists from the juxtaposition of words he found working in his brain. Eventually, like a post-paisley pied piper, he drafted a few of his friends (and family members) into his power chord fantasyland.
The resulting amalgamation of attitudes and anarchy, known as Guided by Voices, became a late 80s/90s standard bearer for individuals fed up with the mainstream music scene. While not always the good-natured guardians of lo-fi authenticity they're famed for (their first few albums have often been called "retread REM") Pollard proved that technical grace was unimportant to the auditory process. Instead, it was all about the song. The same can be said for The Electrifying Conclusion. If it wasn't for the fabulous variety of career-spanning sounds we hear during this sensationally slapdash show, we'd be want to dismiss it as an overall off night for the band. But the GBV faithful know that this is classic Pollard, full of piss, vinegar and as many malted beverages as his bladder can hold at any given moment. The result is a raucous riot act of a concert, a live performance as literal personal purgative for a man ready to move on within his multifaceted musical legacy.
And what a stellar hummable heritage it is. The Electrifying Conclusion - shot vocals, random atonal guitar chords and overall physical exhaustion aside - is prime fist-pumping Voices. It is everything aficionados find charming and challenging about the band, along with heaping helpings of Pollard's patented proto-punk poseur polish. That one man can remember the lyrics to 63 songs for a single performance is absolutely amazing. That he can "almost" recreate the sound of his sensationally strained vocalizing live is equally thrilling. Pollard's sonic shtick has always been earnestness channeled through one too many Who albums. He melds Beatle-pop and Kinks fop and tosses in some strangely surreal prog leanings, all to create an entire dorm room record collection circa 1973. The result is a compendium of tunes of tremendous rock muscle, with a classic guitar/bass sound that bellows above and beneath the riffing to sink directly into your soul.
There are four phases to this show, each one with their own undeniable pleasures. Up and through "Redmen and their Wives", Bob and the boys - Nate Farley (guitar), Chris Slusarenko (bass), Doug Gillard, (guitar/vocals) and Kevin March (drums) - are in excellent form. They speed through a rousing selection of songs, touching on obscure EPS and other rarities along the way ("Do the Earth" is always an exciting rave-up). But right before they play "Shocker in Gloomtown", Pollard downs a jaunty jigger of Gentleman Jack (no sipping) and suddenly the show shifts. It's genial drunk time as Bob bounces around, glazed look in his eyes, and decided frog settled in this throat. As a result, a few of the songs suffer. There is a wonderful rendition of "Sad If I Lost It", but "Unleashed! The Large Hearted Boy" and "Glad Girls" end up as irritating audience participation pieces as Pollard passes the mic into the crowd and let's them do the crooning.
By Encore #1, things clean up substantially. The readings of "My Valuable Hunting Knife" and "Hot Freaks" are fabulous. But then true physical weariness comes calling, and Encore #2 is the Bataan Death March of musical concerts. In what should be the show's sonic high point - Pollard's poetic "Dayton Ohio - 19 Something and 5" - we instead get a barely coherent band basing out the noxious non-notes. The show closer, the epic ballad "Don't Stop Now" is breathtaking, and leaves the viewer with a warm, fuzzy feeling. Yet as they do the group hug thing for the final bow, we don't feel like we're witnessing the end of an era. Instead, The Electrifying Conclusion plays like a final exam. Similar to the Let It Be sentiment shared by Pollard hero Lennon on the Apple Corps. rooftop three decades before, Guided by Voices wanted to make sure they "passed the audition". They may have stumbled along the way, but this wonderfully wonky gig is still a classic concert experience. This is not rock as spectacle. This is rock as SOUND - and the noise is as intoxicating as the freely flowing alcohol on stage.
By the way Bob - you passed. There was never a doubt, really.