By Alexander B. Huls
“For all you stoners out there, I want you to concentrate your attention-deficit-disorder minds to the most glorious instrument in the history of creation: that’s the cowbell, motherfuckers!” – lead singer Ryan Miller.
These utterly indisputable words were spoken at an event that was, for me, almost ten years in the making.
Most of you are probably unaware of the musical powerhouse (in my heart) that is Guster. Picture the scene: the early nineties in the Boston, Massachusetts area. Guster was created by Ryan Miller (lead vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards), Adam Gardner (guitar, vocal, bass, keyboards, trumpet), Brian Rosenworcel (drums/percussions) and was recently joined by Joe Pispasia (bass, guitar, keyboards, banjo, lap steel guitar, harmonia, vocals). While not incredibly prolific – the band has released five albums in twelve years – Guster, in the last few, have expanded upon their already die-hard fan base with more high profile (and, in my opinion, better) releases such as Lost and Gone Forever and Keep it Together, two albums that represent the best Guster has to offer.
You may ask, “So what’s the big deal about Guster?” Well, like any good band, it’s the music. They produce infectious pop melodies driven by great vocal harmonies, fantastic song titles, lyrics that fluctuate from amusing playfulness to elusive poignancy, and the amazing hand percussion (bongos!) by Brian Rosenworcel. What solidified their popularity is their relentless touring and the quality thereof. Their concerts have gained an almost mythical status amongst their fans, so when Guster announced that they would be at the Phoenix Concert Theatre on February 26th, you can only imaginethe amount of anticipation that coursed through every musical vein in my body as I awaited the day I would finally see my favorite band live.
Naturally, there was some apprehension about them not meeting expectations – but Guster did not disappoint. In fact, they exceeded all expectations, high as they were. The band actually sounds better live than on their albums: they vary their songs according to the instruments used therein, to make each a unique experience. Brian’s helter-skelter work on the bongos (some fans call him “thunder god”) propels the musicians along with even more energy than they naturally possess. The most glorious part about their performance, however, is their harmonizing.
Like with many pop artists, studio recordings often embellish weak vocals (here’s looking at you, Snow Patrol), but the purest way to experience Guster, I know now, is to hear them live. If anything, I now feel that studio recordings diminish the clarity, strength, harmony and talent of their voices, both individually and together.
Guster, like its fans, seems to know its own best work. Most of the songs played were from the Lost and Gone Forever and Keep it Together albums, with the usual obligatory sprinkling of songs from the newest album Ganging up on the Sun. Old fan favorites “Demon” and “Airport Song” also made it onto the set list.
Particular highlights for me were “Come Downstairs and Say Hello” and the encore performance of “Happier” – the vigor used by both band and crowd to sing the lyrics “one more inch, you son of a bitch, been wasting my time” reflected the collective recognition that song elicits so well.
Speaking of the crowd, they went a long way towards enriching the experience. Thinking that Guster was mainly popular in New England, I was shocked to see the size of the audience, moreso their dedication. Even the band pointed out how amazed they were that the crowd seemed to recognize songs only a few chords in and knew all the words.
There is, as anyone who has lovingly followed a relatively obscure band for years knows full well, a certain collective euphoria that emerges during a concert: a shared sense of belonging, a feeling of privilege, and a devoted possessiveness. That’s what I loved most about this show.
Through it all Guster, mostly via lead singer Miller, proved to have a great sense of humour. Whether it was narrating over the opening jam/warm-up sessions building to the first song, trying to make us forget our frigid weather by playing “Aquarela do Brasil” or heralding the musical wonders of the cowbell, Guster never failed to promote a fan-friendly atmosphere.
Most amusing was Miller’s encouragement of the audience to follow what he claimed was the latest trend: instead of cheering for an encore, one should boo and verbally abuse the band. The audience obliged, of course, and in kind Ryan and the band came back onstage, all middle fingers firmly extended, with a boisterous “FUCK YOU!” I don’t know about you, but getting the middle finger from your favorite band? That’s my idea of a good time.
Encouraged by the turnout, Ryan suggested early in the show that they would be back very soon. So once again, I wait. Except this time I’ll know what I’m waiting for – one hell of a great night.