Last Friday night, alternative rock band played a high energy set at the Riviera Theatre at Lawrence and Broadway in Chicago. The band formed over 22 years ago in Boston, MA, releasing their first album in 1992. Since then, they’ve toured the world, just released their seventh album, and have brought joy and delight to countless fans who came of age in the early 2000’s. (Yours truly included)
The music of Guster could best be described as coming from the collective mindset that birthed any 90’s alt-rock group. They’re quirky, they retain a pop sensibility while exploring their own tastes, and they appeal especially to a college-age crowd. Never mind that the college crowd which fostered their rise to stardom with 1999’s Lost and Gone Forever is rapidly entering their late-twenties/mid-thirties and that the band members openly tell stories of taking their kids to see CloudGate in Millennium Park. The boys can still rock.
Their set was opened by Kishi Bashi, the self-produced brain child of Kaoru Ishibashi, a member of Of Montreal and Regina Spektor’s traveling group. As openers go, it was fantastic – Kishi Bashi is a one man band who records his own beats, riffs, melodies, and harmonies live on stage using only his voice and a violin. The result is electrifying, and the sonic effect should have lit up the room…if only the majority of the crowd wasn’t busily obsessed with waiting for Guster. (Seriously, it should be illegal to talk at concerts if you’re standing front and center in the pit. I don’t know why anybody would willingly pay $30+ to see a show only to talk through the transcendental music being presented. These are the people who text on their phones while movie trailers and opening shorts are playing. I hate these people.)
Seriously, though, check out Kishi Bashi.
Guster came on shortly thereafter, and didn’t stop playing for two hours. Any major legacy act would be expected to play a long set without breaks. Nobody’s saying that Guster are the equivalent of Dave Mathews, but it’s almost expected that a band with seven studio albums to their name should be able to fill some time. What’s unusual with Guster is the sheer, vivacious joy they take from performing in front of crowds. The band has earned a reputation as a killer live act in their years on the road, and this show was no exception to the rule; Guster plays a fantastic live show.
The expected hits were there. Early on, the band ripped through “Careful” from Keep It Together and “Happier” from Lost and Gone Forever. At no point did the band slack off – every song was given a powerhouse interpretation, with few deviations from the original songs. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Guster’s sound is built around their layered harmonies and overlapping vocals, driven by the rhythms generated by (IMHO) band MVP Brian Rosenworcel, a whirling dervish of limbs and lapping tongues who is renowned for playing entire sets with his hands. At times, he would break away to a second kit where usual drumsticks would be utilized, but the drummer repeatedly bashed on a set of bongos so hard as to knock them loose from their perch. Speaking as an ex-musician, you have to understand the sheer physical power required to drive tightly-wound drums to the ground.
If anything could be taken from the show, it’s the band’s ability to recover from mishaps with a signature smile on their faces. At one point, frontman Adam Gardner tore open a scab on his hand. A plea to the crowd resulted in a single Band-Aid being passed across the pit like a crowd surfer, all the way to the front of the stage. At another point, Gardner stopped the band mid-song when a keyboard proved to be slightly out of tune. “If it’s wrong now, it’ll be wrong later,” he bantered, “And we can’t have that.”
The other signature element of Guster is the constant swirl of instruments across the stage. Gardner, longtime guitarist Ryan Miller, and bassist/banjo/guitarist/keyboardist/what have you changed instruments on every single fucking song, seemingly as their mood would suit them. Many bands would prefer to play one instrument for several songs before changing around to something within a clearly defined role. At some point after forming, Guster said “the hell with this” and decided that embracing musical variety was far more important, adding equal layers of surprise and virtuosity to songs already driven by passion and introspection. It’s rather impressive to witness live.
Guster’s set crescendo’d and peaked repeatedly, thriving upon the uplifting nature of singalongs from the crowd and from the energy provided by the repeated switching of instruments. The use of changing stage elements helped to create an overall shape to the show that might be lacking from more monotonous groups. In particular, the performance of “Lightning Rod” stands out, with a haunting synth soundscape and picked chords accented by a silhouetted vocal performance from Gardner at the front of the stage. Kishi Bashi returned for a three song set, perfectly accenting the band’s hit “Satellite” with classical violin before culminating “Ruby Falls” with a signature looped breakdown.
Humor prevailed at the encore. In what must be a scripted performance, Gardner decried the obligatory encore by stating that the band would simply stand awkwardly in the corner of the stage before returning for their penultimate setlist. The hilarious posturing by the band only served to fuel the crowd’s frenzy, feeding into rousing renditions of hits like “Ramona” and “Demons”. After the band finally left, the crowds refused to abate, cheering the band into returning for an entirely acoustic performance of “Jesus on the Radio”. While acoustically limited, the song showcased exactly how much the band loves to play music. The vocal chords of Gardner straining passionately in limited lighting are something any striving indie musician should seek to achieve.
Guster continues to tour through June 21st. Tickets are available online for all locations – except where sold out.
<all images by Travis J. Cook>