This rumble has nothing to do with records or vinyl or a new and recommended purchase. It might actually seem to be against recorded music. That, however, couldn’t be further from my point. Without recorded music, live music wouldn’t have impromptu sing-a-longs, organic ping pong ball tosses or a following greater than that of your popular local band. (Here in Pittsburgh I’m thinking of the Clarks’ level of fame). Sometimes, however, it seems we’re too busy managing our iTunes libraries to bother with live music anymore. I think about going to five or six shows for every one that I attend. Life gets in the way; we’re in too many places at once. It’s just easier to pick up the City Paper, note all the cool shows and never see any of them. That’s not to say that every show is worth the effort. Really, honestly, when was the last time you saw a memorable amphitheater show? I’d have to point to a Red Hot Chili Peppers show in Atlanta after the release of Californication. Memorable, that is, in the ways in which that show killed my appreciation for the record. Lifeless. Workman-like. I was glad when it was over. And they tragically played very little from Blood Sugar Sex Magic.
Guster will never fill an amphitheater or be accused of melting faces. But I’ll never miss one of their live shows. My wife and I have a special one-sided bond with this band. We first saw Guster at the Music Midtown Festival in Atlanta, shortly before the release of Lost and Gone Forever, their third album. I only knew their name from a fun but forgettable radio single called “Fa Fa.” Within the week I’d purchased their entire three-album discography. We’ve seen a lot of Guster shows over the years, as openers, as headliners, as twilight cogs in massive music festivals. We’ve watched them grow from a trio with a dude that plays the drums with his hands into a band that sometimes requires six musicians (including two drum kits) to recreate songs from their latest albums. Their orchestration has grown more complex, incorporating a variety of genres – folk, bluegrass, singer-songwriter – while maintaining their distinct Gusterness without alienating a devoted fanbase. Their most recent album Easy Wonderful no more resembles Goldfly or Lost and Gone Forever than Chicago’s 20 resembles the sound on the original Chicago Transit Authority record.
Guster inspires this brand of devoted following for a number of reasons, but I’m going to ignore everything that I don’t really want to talk about and instead focus on the one thing I do want to talk about: they appear to have as much fun at their shows as we do. Attending a concert requires that you buy a ticket, rearrange your schedule, hire the babysitter, drive to the show, find the damn venue, park somewhere that won’t get you towed and hope you still have enough time to grab a beer and hear a few songs from the opening act, at least enough to pass judgment on whether or not to pick up the $10 CD at the swag table. I want to see a band that wants to play their songs for me. Eight or nine shows in, Guster has never disappointed. Their on-stage spontaneity never appears planned and when Frontman Ryan Miller says he enjoyed his day in your city, you believe him because you saw him in the parking lot before the show doing doughnuts on a bike.
I’ve written before about music indexing the moments in our lives, grounding them in space and time. Where we were. Who we were with. More often than not we’re responding to a recorded song or an album. Live shows become a different kind of beast – consider the shared experience, a gathering of people singing along to the same song you’ve heard hundreds of times before, but hearing again like never before. If all the pieces fit – right place, right time, the shows you’ll never miss, the shows you’ll drive four hours to see – you’ll have your Guster, the band that grows along with you and always reminds you why live music is the best kind of entertainment, why it’s necessary, even, to make that album come alive when it’s nothing more than a slab of vinyl or a sequence of binary code.