You never know quite what you’ll get, either as far as quality or quantity are concerned, when Ohio-based melodic noise merchants Guided by Voices play a show. Led by the beer-chugging antics of singer and former star high school athlete Robert Pollard, the spastic indie rock band’s unpredictable concerts preserve the danger factor in live music formerly promoted by the likes of the Kinks and the Replacements and Nirvana.
(The group’s most recent previous local show — a particularly inspired performance at the Roxy last fall — was drastically cut short when an over-stimulated fan was injured after he took a nasty, unassisted head-first stage-dive.) At the near-full El Rey on Thursday, the first of two nights with opener Matthew Sweet, GbV gave a long, sometimes ragged, sometimes brilliant show that sampled roughly three dozen of the power-pop band’s fractured fairy tales, spanning songs from its late-’80s self-released lo-fi records up to tracks from last year’s airplay-minded, Ric Ocasek-produced “Do the Collapse” (TVT) album.
The Dayton band took to the stage amid fraternity-style whoops and cheers as a taped recording of Indiana men’s basketball coach Bobby Knight shouting at his “pathetic” team was played overhead, causing many in the heavily male-skewed room to look at each other and laugh and wonder what it meant.
“You can kiss my ass, England,” shouted the always-cryptic Pollard upon his entrance. He then pulled the first of a series of long-neck Budweisers from his onstage ice chest before the group launched into the show’s opening song. A neon sign above the drum set flashed “The Club Is Open,” and if it had been up to the band, it probably would have been open all night.
The group showed its club roots with a marathon performance stretching until 1 in the morning that ultimately was a testament to Pollard and his bandmates’ internal fortitude, not to mention to the loyalty of the 100 or so fans who stuck it out to the bitter end. “I hope you don’t mind that I’m hammered, I can barely stand,” stated the singer at one reflective point around midnight.
His performance included lots of unsteady karate kicks and walking collisions with his guitar players.
The band is one that treats fans to different set-lists every night, making for more surprises. Besides such slick new tracks as “Teenage FBI” and the intense “In Stitches,” the 140-minute show featured such highlights as the driving beat and flyaway vocals of early song “Waved Out,” 1995’s “Hot Freaks,” in which Pollard sings of sex with old ladies, the self-centered “Game of Pricks” and, what’s arguably GbV’s best song, the brilliant pop of “I Am a Scientist,” performed here in the alternate version found on a 1994 EP.
Cover songs, as always, were also a big part of the show, and at the El Rey were effectively used to manipulate the sometimes-rowdy crowd’s mood. After a mid-set version band’s “Goldhead Mountaintop Queen” left the house a bit restless, a furious take on the Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” recharged both musicians and listeners.
Elsewhere, relatively faithful rendition’s of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” and the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” offered needed counterbalance to Pollard’s fragmented approach to songwriting. “It’s good to be back in L.A.,” Pollard said before the evening’s last song. “It’s a scary place.”