Chronicling the creative process for Pop Zeus, the forthcoming Guided By Voices/Bob Pollard tribute comic- including sketches, concepts, finished art and whatever else is in my brain at the moment.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Robert Pollard and The Ascended Masters- Bowery Ballroom NYC Show Review

(NYC show photos courtesy of and copyright Erin Leah Pryde)

In a word- wow. Phil's tiny grey cells were fully blown by this amazing show. Easily my favorite Robert Pollard or Guided By Voices show in a number of years, and that's not just the post-show glow talking. But let's start at the very beginning of the story...

So, your boy (me) has been really struggling over the last couple months. Work burn-out in the extreme was turning me into a zombie for most of my waking hours. And as usually follows, my personal life was suffering (the last thing I want to do when I am exhausted is see other people... or rather, let them see me). I was really starting to cave up, big time- isolation drills in full effect. A vacation was in order. And the opportunity presented itself in the form of my niece, Grace!

I had been wanting to meet (does one "meet" a baby?) and spend time with my niece for many months (she is nearly 5 months old as I write this). And, as it happens, Robert Pollard and the Ascended Masters were doing a brief Midwest and Northeast 8 date tour in support of Normal Happiness. So it was on! Of course my first priority was spending time with my brother Dave, his wife Jen and Grace. But I figured I would be able to see at least one of the two tri-state area shows (NYC and Philadelphia).

Flash forward to mid-November and several relaxing and fun days at my brother's place in Caldwell NJ. And it seemed cool for me take a brief time-out from the family to check out the New York City gig. So I drove to Jersey City on a soggy, chilly and congested Monday evening, took the PATH train into lower Manhattan and headed for the Bowery Ballroom.

And as I climbed into the familiar confines of the PATH tunnels, I started to feel really happy for the first time in a long time. I was on the PATH, the same trains I had ridden as a fresh-faced SVA art student back in the day. I was heading into Manhattan, my city- full of the kinda people, MY people that I miss out here on the left coast. And I was on my way to a Bob show- an annual (at least) renewal of spirit and soul. What could be better?

I had hoped to meet up with some of the NY and traveling Settlers from the Guided By Voices message board I frequent. But I didn't have a chance to check DTS from my brothers house, so the meet-up spot and time was unknown to me. Plus it was drizzly and cold, so I hightailed it over to the venue to warm up and get a good spot for the show.

Bounding upstairs with glee, I secured a spot right in front of the stage between future Tommy Keene and Bob positions. And as I waited, I struck up a conversation with the two folks nearest to me- one of whom seemed very familiar from past Guided By Voices shows. As it happens, they were both very cool hardcore fans originally from Houston who were even in Chicago for the final shows. The world of Geebs fans is indeed small. And its always fun to shoot the Bob with fellow fans.

First up on stage was La Dolce Vita, the unsubtly named band that actor Michael Imperioli from the Sopranos had assembled. And they were pretty damn good. Bob even made an appearance in the doorway above the stage in the wings, his silhouette nodding approval from on high- a rock Godfather of sorts. But I can't say much good about the second act, Starling Electric. Besides appearing to have spent more time on their hair and clothes than their rock chops, the music was like a K-Tel Rock Sounds Of The 60's compilation- lacking focus and playing into many cliches. Not helping matters were the hilarious asides and rolling eyes from my new friends from Houston- almost laughed out loud several times!

So, cooler of beers at the ready, it was finally time for Bob and the gang to take the stage. And the packed crowd was right there with them. A big part of what made the show so fun for me was the nearly out of control, but still not annoying enthusiasm from the crowd- the perfect blend of chaos and fun. There was some ugly pushing and shoving right in front of Bob (and one particularly obnoxious crowd surfer), but in my little corner things were cool. And the Ascended Masters were in high spirits, gelled into a unit more than any other show I've witnessed.

And Bob! Bob was in great voice and kicking up a storm. I swear I saw at least 3 everlasting big kicks that night. He seemed renewed, young even (in spite of his nearly white 'fro of curls)- in great shape and so happy to be playing with this talented bunch of musicians, throwing arms around Tommy and Jason throughout the show.

And being right in front of the venerable Tommy Keene, I can say without hesitation that he was on fire that night! Keene's guitar rang out like a bell, adding lovely textures to the leads, improvising upon the recorded material. Shifting with ease from guitar to keyboards and sometimes both at the same time, Tommy's contribution to the Ascended Master's sound cannot be overstated. And the very addition of keyboards to Pollard's live show adds subtle dimension to the usual guitar attack.

Right off the bat, Bob and the Masters tore through Accidental Texas Who from Normal Happiness like a hot axe through butter. I had managed to sneak my digital camera into the venue so as soon as Bob announced the next song, Fairly Blacking Out from my beloved Takeovers LP Turn To Red, I knew I must seize the opportunity. Here is the video!..

The clip gets freakin transcendent right around 1:45, if I do say so myself. Jason Narducy leaps in from off screen and Bob points up to the rock gods in the sky- just amazing. One of my best live videos, I think. And you can pinpoint the moment when security asked me to stop filming, the bastards. ;)

Normal Happiness was well represented that night, dominating the setlist with 13 songs- including the surprisingly strong Give Up The Grape/Pegasus Glue Factory medley, pop gem Rhoda Rhoda, Whispering Whip, the lovely Boxing About, and my favorite Serious Birdwoman. The rollicking album closer Full Sun also served to close out the main set.

Interspliced were a surprising number of brand new, ear-catching songs from the upcoming 2007 Robert Pollard solo LP Silverfish Trivia. Piss Along You Bird, Met Her At A Seance, Circle Saw Boys Club (my early favorite), Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love, Life Of A Wife, Father Is Good and Touched To Be Sure all made their New York debuts.

Understandably, 2006's amazing double solo album From A Compound Eye was an big part of the setlist, including the live powerhouses The Right Thing, US Mustard Company (for which Bob turned around to display the song title on the back of his workshirt), Dancing Girls And Dancing Men (the Ascended Masters really send this one into the stratosphere, with even more jump than the album version), Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft and the epic Conqueror Of The Moon.

But what really made this night and the rest of the tour so special were the setlist surprises- brilliant songs of yesteryear rarely if ever played live. I Get Rid Of You from Speak Kindly, Wrinkled Ghost from Waved Out, Ghosts Of A Different Dream, Drag Days and No Sky from Under The Bushes Under The Stars and Much Better Mr. Buckles from Do The Collapse were all live revelations, particularly Drag Days. And the inclusion of perennial favorites Everybody Thinks I'm A Raincloud, Subspace Biographies (at the behest of Tommy Keene, the song most requested of him... and quite possibly my favorite Bob song, not heard since the next to last GBV show ever), Motor Away and Game Of Pricks (mosh/crush city).

Amazingly, Bob chose to end the evening with the rarely heard and brilliant Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory. The crowd sung along with pure joy and abandon. Stupendous.

Spirits lifted right out of my sweaty frame, I practically floated back to Jersey City. It was one of those shows that left me feeling truly liberated, with an optimism about the future and renewed vigor for Pop Zeus. For some reason, I cranked Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True all the way back to my dad's house on the Jersey Shore. Singing along over the ringing in my ears, I realized that I knew every single word- weird.

I arrived home at 3 AM, quickly realizing I was not going to make it to Philadelphia that night. Ironically, the Philadelphia show was not only sparsely attended (only about 100 fans- man, do I still feel profoundly guilty I didn't go) but it became the unexpected last show of the tour. At some point, Bob severely tore his calf muscle (ringing any bells?) and cancelled the remaining 3 shows of the tour. Rather than half-ass his performances and let the fans down, Robert Pollard graciously called it a day. But little did we realize the announcement that was to come. Philadelphia- the last show ever, or at least for a long while?

Regardless, the Bowery Ballroom show was an amazing evening, bringing this uber-fan to joy (Subspace Biographies) and tears (Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft)- a night I will not soon forget. And I hope Robert Pollard and the Ascended Masters realize how amazing they are, how much these shows mean to the fans and keep on keeping on...

(show photo courtesy of Dfactor from Waved Rumor)


Anonymous Phil said...

great show report!
Who were the folks from Houston? Was it a guy named Robert? cause I'M from Houston and i was at the 'last' gbv shows in Chicago too.

(Phil) SHAHvee

2:59 PM

Blogger Phil said...

They were cousins from Houston, a guy and a girl, neither named Robert ;). Must be a few hardcore fans from Houston. Which just reenforces my theory that its a small world for Geebs fans. Houston is a great town, by the way.

Thanks for stopping by and cheers!

9:57 PM


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