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January 10 2004
By Jim Abbott
Sentinel Pop Music Critic
Loud and Beer
When Guided By Voices hits Orlando Monday, it won't be just a gig -- it'll be a happening, thanks to hadcore fans.
Some rock stars measure success by gold records.
For Robert Pollard, the forty- something lead singer of the prolific and consistently brilliant Guided By Voices, honor flows from a golden beverage.
He's ready for another beer baptism when the Dayton, Ohio, band takes the stage Monday at the Social in Orlando. In a town desperate for grassroots cultural traditions, the joyous beer shower puts the home of 'N Sync and Mickey Mouse at the forefront of the mythology of a much-revered indie-rock force.
Anywhere you go, GBV fans are among the most devoted you'll find. The band's music is lauded for its combination of Pollard's abstract lyricism and a knack for inventive Beatle-esque melodies and crunching guitars
reminiscent of the Who.
For some reason, Orlando has become the epicenter of all that frenzied passion.
"We don't understand it," Pollard says. "I don't know if it's the atmosphere of the town itself, if it's just a party town, or there's just a circle of people into indie rock. I'm thinking of picking up a raincoat and goggles for this one."
Pollard, a 46-year-old former elementary school teacher, is a formidable songwriter. He has churned out more than 800 songs since the band formed in 1983. That's almost twice the number written by Bob Dylan during more than four decades.
There are typically at least two new Guided By Voices albums out each year, along with a staggering array of EPs, Pollard solo albums, boxed sets, unofficial live albums and side projects with other bands. Pollard often illustrates the album covers himself and also started a literary magazine, Eat, last summer.
Fans have paid more than $900 for one of the original 500 vinyl copies of Propeller, valuable because each copy of the 1992 release boasts individual handmade cover designs.
But even amid a nationwide obsession, Orlando stands apart. It's here that Guided By Voices concerts became "happenings," with fans crowded against the stage, reaching to touch the hem of Pollard's untucked shirt as they sing along to every word.
It's here that the playful crossfire of beer spray between band and audience became an initiation rite.
"It just blows my mind," says Pollard, adding that only one other club in the country, Berbati's Pan in Portland, Ore., approaches our manic devotion. "It's a joyous thing."
"It's just a beer-soaked mess," says Jim Leatherman, 37, a professional photographer from Orlando. "It's a spectacle. The band has this neon sign that says 'The club is open,' and once that light goes on, it's open season."
Another Orlando loyalist, Thomas Scott, 42, says it's the music, not the spectacle, that attracts him.
He doesn't rank himself among the hardcore obsessives willing to part with thousands of dollars for collectibles. Still, the graphic designer at Walt Disney World, who also runs his own Eye Noise graphic-design company, has amassed more than 200 GBV vinyl albums, CDs, videos, EPs and cassettes.
"I've always been a sucker for a catchy tune," Scott says. "The brilliance of the band early on was that Pollard wrote these incredibly catchy songs, but they were buried in that underground aesthetic. Then, the whole mythology of the band is really appealing. These guys were playing in the garage for 10 years."
Pollard kept his teaching job until 1994, nearly 11 years after forming his first version of the band in Dayton, where GBV is based. Pollard approached the band as a hobby for most of the 1980s, recording albums in a homemade garage studio with a revolving cast of musicians that eventually reached more than 40.
Vampire on Titus, a 1993 album on Cleveland's independent Scat Records, caught the attention of indie-rock icons such as Kim Deal of the Pixies and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. A year later, Bee Thousand earned the band national praise and a Lollapalooza slot.
As the band's popularity rose, Pollard never lost his aesthetic direction or his work ethic. He has an estimated 500 songs that he has never recorded.
"I admire Pollard so much because he carved out this great thing for himself where he can continue to do whatever else he wants to do and has the fan base to support it," Scott says.
Charles Corbin, an Orlando freelancer in the film and television industry, is among those supporting the cause.
"I'm probably up in the hundreds of CDs," says Corbin, 29. "It's ridiculous; it's pretty bad. But even on these little EPs, there's a song that's not on an album that's amazing. He's got all the music pouring out of him."
Melodies and mayhem
The music is the point at all the shows -- but the beer flies only here.
It will obliterate the band's set list, a scrap of note paper that Pollard clutches in a sweaty hand. It will sting his eyes, causing him to retreat comically behind guitarists Doug Gillard and Nate Farley, drummer Kevin March or bassist Chris Slusarenko, who replaced Tim Tobias.
At first, Pollard didn't know what to make of it.
"I was thinking, 'We're not being assaulted, I don't think, 'cause they are singing the songs.' "
It's a ritual that started spontaneously at an anniversary show at the Sapphire (since renamed the Social) four years ago. The idea was an extension of the band's fondness for drinking onstage, which manifests itself in a giant crowd roar before the first note -- when the crew hauls the band's battered cooler out before the show.
"We just thought that people did this at other shows," says Jim Faherty, the Orlando promoter who was then owner of the club now called the Social. "Then we went to see them at Chapel Hill [N.C.], and everyone was just standing around. Nothing was going on, and we were acting like maniacs."
Before discovering Orlando, Pollard and the band were ready to stop touring in Florida, after a few disappointing shows. A 1994 concert at Stetson University in DeLand, then a dry campus, was a drag for the band, though fan Thomas Scott was there and says the music was astounding.
"It's one of the best shows I've seen in my life," he says. He has been to seven GBV concerts; he says no other cities compare with Orlando.
"I saw them in Atlanta in 2001, and it was a totally professional concert, a big rock act, and they slammed through the material. It was completely opposite from the pandemonium here."
In addition to the pocket of rabid fans, Orlando has become a welcome GBV destination because of the way promoters treat the band. It's an attitude that's a contrast from Pollard's experience at Stetson.
"We got invited to a keg party before that show, and they asked us to chip in for the keg," Pollard remembers. "We're like, 'Oh, man, we are not doing this anymore.' "
Faherty, who ranks GBV and Sonic Youth as the two best live acts he has ever seen, changed the band's perception by embracing them like family. Members have bunked at his house, shared dinners and socialized. This weekend, Faherty will visit Universal Orlando with some of the band.
The new owners of the Social, Gerard Mitchell and Michael McRaney, are continuing that familial tradition. The club's menu includes a drink named "the Bob Pollard": five Budweisers and five shots of Jack Daniel's for $27.
"Oh, yes!" Pollard exclaims. "That's hilarious. I drink Miller Lite now, but don't tell them that. But I'll do one of them. I'll do the Bob Pollard."
That spirit keeps fans showering the praise along with the beer.
"Guided By Voices holds the healing power of music," says fan Charles Corbin. "No matter how difficult life is, it replenishes you. When you get out of there, it's like, 'All right, I'm ready for the next day.' "