Guster @ The Moore Theatre, 01.18.11
If pity parties and mopefests are your thing, and if throngs of joyous folks are your kryptonite, you'd be well advised to stay the hell away from a Guster show. Tuesday night, The Moore was packed to the brim with the most smiles and post-Christmas cheer I've ever seen at a show (per capita) in Seattle. It was almost as if grunge had never happened; like some strange alternate universe where Nirvana always stayed underground and somehow the Spin Doctors became the most wildly popular and influential band of a generation. (Actually, the Gin Blossoms or Connells would be a much more appropriate comparison musically, but the idea of a universe where the Spin Doctors are the standard by which bands are judged is just so absurd that I at least have to share it with you.) The '90s would be completely revised--from a place where crabby self-deprecation was rewarded into a Pleasantville-esque world full of suburban garage bands who all have incredibly healthy relationships with their parents, a healthy exercise routine, a vitamin habit, and a responsible 401k plan.
How a band can make an almost-20-year career out of being happily well-adjusted (while still writing interesting songs) is beyond me, but Guster continues to write more layered and dynamic records, and recreating those live is no easy feat. It's also an incredibly difficult task to sell sunshine to a jaded, skeptical world (especially in this rainy city), but somehow Guster makes it seem effortless.
Guster bounded out onto the stage, jumping right into the bouncy "Manifest Destiny" off 2006's sprawling Ganging Up on the Sun. While the message behind "Manifest Destiny" isn't exactly the most uplifting thing you've ever heard ("Friends and lovers, the world is coming down!"), you couldn't tell from the clapping hands and twirling bodies flanking the front of the stage. Opening the curtains and letting the sun shine into the Moore, Guster bounded about the stage with all the self-awareness of a toddler listening to oldies radio for the first time. Drummer/percussionist Brian Rosenworcel starts the show on his percussion setup, beating the holy hell out of his bongos and smashing cymbals with his bare hands, stealing the spotlight (and a good chunk of the mix) from singer Ryan Miller, who was gleefully pounding out the roots of the song from behind a piano.
Playing with a simple stage setup, Guster is at that level of touring success where they have the ability to use a ton of smoke and mirrors and make their shows over-the-top circuses. Thankfully, the band realizes that their musicianship (and everyman approachability) are some of the cornerstones of their success, and thus keeps it simple, so the production never overshadows the product. While Guster's early records had some fantastic hooks, some rough edges, and some really predictable "dorm rock" moments, 2003's Keep It Together was a huge turning point and maturing moment for the band. They've transformed themselves from a group of goofy guys who started a band in college to incredibly expansive pop musicians; watching the entire band switch instruments after each song (playing a never-ending game of musical chairs), it was almost like watching a band rehearse and try new things, which kept every song's approach fresh. Aside from the occasional bongo overload (which for me happened quite a few times during the evening), Guster is one of those bands who are as tasteful as they come; there isn't an unnecessary note in any of their songs, and from a melodic/harmonic standpoint, few bands out there have as much foresight and class as Guster. Guitarist Adam Gardner's stage presence is a little rigid at times, but watching him effortlessly pull together some of the more textured (ebow, slide, machine-gun tremolo) guitar parts of the band's songs (studio parts that one wouldn't necessarily believe would be represented live) was mind-blowingly lovely.
Guster could've sleepwalked through their set and still had the crowd eating it up. However, the magic of Guster lies in that perfect balance of incredible musicianship and complete comfort in their own skin, as well as just being friendly/inviting to their incredibly loyal fan base. Guster's fans are something like the Seahawks' 12th man, and the band loves to get their audience involved onstage. Midway through the set, the band pulled up a fan (Greg from Seattle, totally wasn't me) to draw a chalk mural on a chalkboard they had placed in front of their piano. Singer Ryan Miller gave the burgeoning artist his direction, and as the band played through an energetic version of "Demons," Miller's vision came to life for all to see; the Space Needle (complete with 12th Man flag) was being attacked by a shark with lazer eyes, and Tony the Tiger was rushing in from the wings to defend it.
The set was full of plenty of other goofy moments. When a ukelele descended from the heavens (or from the rafters above the stage via some very obvious cables) into the arms of singer Ryan Miller before "Come Downstairs and Say Hello," it was one of those perfect Guster moments of giddy goofing followed by a warm, joyous rendition of one of their more melancholy songs. The band ended their set with an unprecedented "triple disco outro" that was hilarious and overwhelming to take in. Taking Billy Joel-esque liberties with "Hang On," they mashed up "My Life" into the middle and end of it. They followed that by mashing up a funked-up version of the Chariots of Fire theme with "Homecoming King" (song #2 of the triple disco outro).
Ryan Miller was all sorts of fired up about the notion of going out with a triple disco outro, and the band launched into an incredibly spectral-sounding version of "The Captain" (complete with shit-hot guitar licks by Luke Reynolds), with now-bassist Adam Gardner semi-spontaneously funking up the end of the song into a ridiculous Ryan Miller falsetto freestyle about the power of the triple disco outro. It was the kind of totally unnecessary, hilarious self-indulgence that a band at that weird "hovering just below stardom but just fine with it" level can make, and it was as endearing as it gets.
Closing with an ADD-addled encore, the band took on some of their more mellow moments ("Stay With Me Jesus"), followed by another improvised number (affectionately referred to hereon as the "Seattle Ass-Kissing Jam") in which Miller rapped about their previous night's encounters sleeping on a Washington oyster farm as Gardner abused his wah-wah for some Jamiroquai-esque funk licks. They ran through "Barrel of a Gun" (a tip of the hat to longtime fans), and ran offstage for a moment before coming back with guitarist Luke Reynolds wearing a toque and strumming the opening strains of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge." Rosenworcel made his way to the mike and showed why he's the guy behind the drums; I've spent many an hour in some of the world's shittiest karaoke bars, and Rosenworcel's self-professed awful rendition of Anthony Kiedis' terrible warble ranks up there alongside the best/worst karaoke performances I've ever seen. As far as ways to close a show . . . well, that's an appropriately Guster way to do it.
Guster has rather impeccable taste in openers; over the past few years, they've pretty much played mellow indie-pop tastemaker, bringing Nada Surf, Rogue Wave, Ray LaMontagne, and Wheat along with them. Philadelphia's Good Old War continued that tradition as a perfect complement to Guster's harmonies, and the trio more than held their own on that front. Breezing through a fairly quick set, Good Old War somehow made a giant, warm, well-rounded wall of sound come out of three guys, an acoustic guitar, some extra percussion, and a two-piece drum set. It was stripped-down and raw in all the right ways, and when the band dragged out a lovely, polyrhythmic, spot-on cover of Paul Simon's "Cecilia," the crowd was sold on Good Old War. After one more song,the band called it a night, and the crowd responded in kind with a standing ovation. (Given their allegiances to bands with soaring harmonies, I wouldn't be surprised to see locals The Head and the Heart sharing a stage with Guster someday.)