March 29, 2006

SXSW Report #28: Robert Pollard @ Pok-E-Jo's

As soon as Torche’s set ended, I drove back downtown to catch Robert Pollard, one of my biggest living musical heroes, play on the outdoor stage of the unfortunately named BBQ place Pok-E-Jo’s. His new solo album From a Compound Eye signals an artistic rebirth --- now that the albatross of his previous band Guided by Voices is off his back, he is free to experiment with his music and put more vulnerability into his writing. I had read reports on the GBV e-mail list Postal Blowfish about the shows he’s been playing with his new band, and all of them said that they’ve been tighter and less boozy than the average GBV show.

After a brief and hilarious stand-up routine from Patton Oswalt about Cirque du Soleil (“It’s what a gay Frenchman sees in his head when he’s tired and horny”), Pollard and his new band walked on stage and got down to business. “We don’t have much time to f*ck around,” Pollard said to the audience. They played 13 songs from Compound Eye, two songs from his upcoming follow-up Normal Happiness, and one song from his Circus Devils side project in under an hour. When one song ended, Pollard would introduce the next one, take a swig of beer and shut up. His laconic stage presence actually reminded me of the first GBV show I ever saw (in New York City 12 years ago), back when he was too shy to say much to the audience.

The Blowfish were right: Pollard’s new band is, from a technical standpoint, the best that he’s ever played with. Lead guitarist Tommy Keene may not have Doug Gillard’s chops, but the songs on Compound Eye don’t require them. Keene’s a better backing vocalist, and when he switched from guitar to keyboard, he added a lightness to Pollard’s songs that never came across at GBV shows. Jon Wurster’s drumming was rarely flashy, but he kept the tempo going with a steadiness that GBV’s last few drummers failed to. Guitarist Dave Phillips and bassist Jon Narducy resembled Nate Farley and Tim Tobias, both in looks and in stage presence. Unlike Nate and Tim, though, I never had to worry about Dave and Jon forgetting the chords to any of the songs. Pollard was the only one who drank onstage, and even then he didn’t get carried away. As with every GBV show I've attended in Texas, he addressed me on a first-name basis, gave me the microphone to introduce songs, and even let me take swigs from his bottle of tequila.

All tolled, the band’s performance was so great that no one in the audience seemed to care that they didn’t play a single proper GBV song. You already know I was rocking out to it; watch their rendition of “The Right Thing” on YouTube for proof!

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