Guster and the Boston Pops, Symphony Hall, Boston, MA- 6/22
For more on this performance be sure to check out Guster’s Tour Diary in the September/October issue of Relix.
Guster has always been a great pop band. Over the years, the group has been mislabeled as both jam and bubblegum, picking up a few fans everywhere in between. But, at heart, Guster is simply an organic pop act, more comfortable writing songs than improvising around them. So, in certain respects, Guster was the perfect accompaniment for the Boston Pops, a classical orchestra that has spent the past century interpreting the day's pop music in a symphony setting.
Part of the annual Pops of the Edge concert series, Guster's performance was, in certain respects, a novelty. Drawing the older portion of the group's clean-cut audience and a handful of even older, and even cleaner-cut, Boston Pops season ticket holders, Guster's Symphony Hall performance seemed destined to join the group's press biography before it even took place. Sandwiched between a brief Midwest college tour and an extended summer break, Guster's two-night Symphony Hall stand also happened to be the group's only hometown show in 2005 and a chance for the band to test out the new material its spent the past year crafting in the studio.
Initially another performer was scheduled to join the Boston Pops on these two dates: Trey Anastasio. While Anastasio has veered into the classical world through written charts and orchestration, Guster has used classical strings and horns more for lush emphasis than as a compositional technique. So, for the most part, Guster's performance utilized the Boston Pops as an orchestra-size backing band, fleshing out its pop harmonies and quirky percussion tricks. In general, the marriage was a success, accenting Guster's songwriting and accomplished vocal abilities, though on the whole, the collaboration did not break much new ground for either performance unit.
In the small program each fan received upon entry, The Boston Pops traced its evolution from the late 1800s. Over time the orchestra has changed its material to meet the day's current sound, whether that's jazz or rock-pop. Similarly, Guster has evolved over the past decade, growing from an acoustic, post-Dave Matthews college band (1994's Parachute) to a group of slightly jam-pop twenty-somethings (1996’s Goldfly) to adult alternative crooners (1999’s Lost and Gone Forever) to Brooklyn-bred indie-poppers (2003’s Keep it Together). But, as its stylistic leanings have matured, Guster's sound has remained natural and true to form.
Opening with "I Spy," a short enjoyable ditty for the group's major label debut Lost and Gone Forever, Guster ran through a selection of its best known numbers. Ironically, though Guster shed its misapplied jamband tag shortly after the term reached the masses, the group’s new live-set offers more room for experimentation than ever. Indeed, while the group earned a spot in the original Jam Bands book which inspired this website and, in turn, popularized the jamband slug, Guster has drifted farther and farther from its Wetlands-era peer group (moe., Strangefolk and Galactic) as the often misapplied term has become more defined. With the addition of full-time touring member Joe Pisapia, Guster is now able to layer its songs with banjo, harmonica, keyboards and bass, pushing the group into its grooviest territory yet. Particularly of note was a weighty version of "Backyard," a slightly psychedelic, mellow rock song compiled from leftover pieces of other tracks off 2003’s Keep it Together. With the Boston Pops providing a solid bedrock, Guster turned two of its most difficult compositions, "Come Down Stairs and Say Hello" and "Two Points for Honesty" into mini-suites, proving lead singer/chief songwriter Ryan Miller's songwriting abilities and hinting at what the group would sound like on a larger budget.
Lake many of their peers, Guster's new songs continue to veer the group into alt-country and indie-pop, resulting in some of the group's most mature songs to date. "Dear Valentine," especially hints of the group's emerging hipster influence and Brooklyn sensibility. If bands like Wilco and My Morning Jacket represent the point where jam and indie meet, then Guster is living proof of how the two grassroots styles can be sold to the pop market. Hiding their college-looks beneath new beards and better cut clothes, Guster seemed to embody their new sound, perhaps the true style they have always been searching for.
In lieu of a traditional encore, Guster offered an acoustic version of its bluegrass inspired rock country song "Jesus on the Radio" —-as the group is found of saying sung by a band of Jews—-, before reprising "Come Down Stirs and Say Hello." At this point in their career Guster have little to prove. For better or worse the group has defined its fan base and knows its limitations. But almost fifteen years since forming at Tufts, the group still is figuring out new ways to have fun playing music. And, perhaps that's the ultimate proof that pop can exist in the world of underground music.