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On The Scene: Guster Celebrate 25 Years at the Beacon Theatre

by Matt Norlander on December 06, 2016
It fucking worked perfectly during soundcheck.

And now, when the critical moment hits, limpidly, hysterically — maybe even appropriately — the shit’s just taking way longer than expected. People along the aisles crane their necks. Those in the balcony lean forward, iPhones out. Everyone wonders what’s going on, ultimately trusting that this stunt will be worth it.

With Guster, the reveal is almost always worth the wait. And at the moment, Big Friend, the band’s lovable-yet-mysteriously-unsettling massive inflatable mascot, is slow to inflate. Like, two-minutes-too-slow. This was going to be poetically and symbolically perfect. Guster at Beacon Theater the day after Thanksgiving, playing to a sold out crowd in celebration of their two-and-a-half decades as a band. A 25-songs-for-25-years set crafted with fan favorites, for-the-hardcores rarities and appropriate nods to every iteration of the band’s portage trail to this night. The culmination was to come at the start of a rare second encore, during a poignant, guitar/vocal-only performance of “Parachute” — one of the first songs, and still among the very best, the band ever wrote.

The droll Brian Rosenworcel, drummer and percussionist, emerges from side stage, mid-song, to unpack and plug in Big Friend.

Then ... he just stands there. We all do. And wait, wait for the emblematic crescendo from a furry creature in blow-up nylon form. Anxiety turns to amusing awkwardness. Rosenworcel simpers as he implores bandmates Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner to vamp. We can still pull this off!

There is no vamp. The song ends. Big Friend is a blob of disappointment.

“GOD DAMMIT!” Rosenworcel half-jokingly screams as “Parachute” comes to a landing.

“I just want you to know,” a chagrined Miller then tells the amused crowd, ”after 25 years, we still got it, guys.”

Within a minute of the song finishing and the trio prepping for the next tune, Big Friend is … suddenly big! Inflation has reached completion. Quintessential Guster.

Guster: the band that invented a word. A word that transformed to a proper noun for a group who became defined by decades of nimble alt-pop songwriting and an essence of being one of the most fan-friendly and relatable bands to hit the American mainstream the past two decades. More people than you realize know of and still listen to Guster. Ask a friend; you’ll see. Still, they’re one of the most underrated, under-discussed bands of the past two decades, a group liked by many but only truly, endlessly loved by a concentrated faction that has helped pushed this group to continue to make music and do it on their own terms.

This is an abridged story of how they aligned on a fluke, managed to make music for 25 years — and only recently decided to keep growing and going.

Scene: sub-freezing temperatures outside a blue dumpster in Pittsburgh on a January afternoon. The glamour level is lower than the mercury reading.

Snow underfoot, Guster is playing a show to 11 people.

The impromptu four-song set came about in early 2016 after the band had a show in Philly cancelled due to a blizzard. Stuck four hours west, in the Steel City, they figured, Why not? Let’s literally play in front of garbage. The over/under on other established bands that would do this is set at 0.5 (and I am taking the under). This was one of the most simplistically charming things I’ve seen any band do at any level. Especially in a cynical social media era, when so many viral videos and photos could double as clever PR tricks.

That embraceable work ethic and down-to-earth attitude is what’s allowed Guster to comfortably thrive on their own accord.
“There’s an approachability that’s there,” Miller said. “There’s not a pretension that’s there. There’s a sense of humor that’s been pretty pervasive throughout, a sense ‘They don’t take themselves too seriously.’”

You don’t have to idolize your music heroes. I’ve found, often times, the groups and artists many people stick with well beyond their teen years and into their late 20s, 30s and 40s are the ones who truly enable a connection with their fan base. With Guster, there’s a link from interpersonal communication through song that extends to the personality of the band and its members. Guster’s appeal with tens of thousands of their supporters stems from the notion that Rosenworcel, Gardner, Miller (and recent fourth full-time member addition Luke Reynolds) could be your friend, that they really are your friends. Funny guys with a crazy-good knack for melody and harmony who happen to be in a band.

Guster is the most affable, personable, enjoyable alt-pop group of the past two decades. They are not an acquired taste. You “get” them pretty quickly. Check out the dark groove of “Airport Song,” the awesome vocal interplay on “What You Wish For.” “Careful” could have been written in 1976. “Dear Valentine,” off Ganging Up on the Sun, for my money, is one of the best deep cuts on any pop record of the 2000s. Recent LPs have featured sonic exploration with great results, like “On the Ocean,” “Expectation” and “Lazy Love.” They mostly write digestible but layered pop songs that underscore their understated adaptability and underrated sonic prowess. Every record has been a natural modification of the band’s sound and songwriting, and that’s not boilerplate praise. Listen to the records; their modification is undeniable. They were never one-, two- or three-hit wonders. They’ve never won a Grammy. Because of this, it’s easy to claim that Guster’s become one of the most under-appreciated pop acts of the past two decades.

I’ll claim just that.
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