Guster All Grown Up
Guster And Mason Jennings Feb. 28 At The 9:30 Club
As a young band, Guster gained quite a cult following with their DMB-fan friendly modern soft rock. These days, their records don't seem to have the same ripple effect that their debut, "Parachute," did, but their music is more mature, more original and better than ever. They showed it off at the 9:30 Club in front of a cult following that has swollen enough to sell out two nights far in advance.
"Parachute" was an admirable record for three guys, two acoustic guitars and a set of bongos, but Guster is a rock band, now, and the most stunning effect in their arsenal is how percussionist Brian Rosenworcel can provide such rockin' rhythm on his set of bongos.
Guster -- now a four piece with multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapia in the group and sometimes a six piece with two others helping out on keys and percussion at times -- led off with the sunny "Ramona" from 2003's "Keep It Together" but really made the ladies swoon with the next song, the heartbreaker "Satellite" from the latest record. Then the crowd erupted when they lit into "Barrel Of A Gun" with Pisapia on banjo.
The band sprinkled some of the ol' favs in with a set largely comprised of songs from the past three albums. But the boys maybe wasted their best moment early in the set when they played their cover, an inspired choice. Ary Barroso's "Brazil" (translated by Bob Russell) is a song you may not know by name but would know it to hear it. It's been around almost a century and has been record over and over, by artists like Chick Corea, Desi Arnaz, Ray Conniff, Paul Anka, Josephine Baker, The Coasters and on and on. Guster's was a playful, light-hearted rendition with a trumpet solo from Adam Gardner. Afterwards, Guster displayed the quality that helped the band gain their grassroots following a decade ago -- their humorous onstage banter. Ryan Miller asked Gardner about how he felt about his solo, and Gardner responded, "80 percent." He'd messed up the beginning, Miller explained but then promised it'd be better the next night. After asking the crowd if they'd be back and getting a mixed response, Miller recanted and offered, "That was the best trumpet solo ever."
That's what makes you want to like Guster. Miller's such a natural talking to the crowd, and he always has been. He makes everyone in the audience feel like they're in Guster's living room just hanging out. Many of the songs reflect Miller's wit and sense of nostalgia. "One-Man Wrecking Machine" takes everyone back to their high school days of "smoking skinny joints," and "Come Downstairs and Say Hello" is probably the greatest joint they've ever recorded, at least to anyone who's experienced the repetitive dread of trying to change their lives. "To tell you the truth, I've said it before, tomorrow I start in a new direction," Miller sings. "Every night as I'm falling asleep, these words repeat in my head." The song is also one of their most musically complex, creative and memorable. It's a two-part song, starting out mellow and wistful, then speeding up into a groove reminiscent of Yo La Tengo's recent work.
Which brings us back to Rosenworcel's bongos. The sound he gets out of his set is remarkable. He keeps the beat as well as he could with a regular kit -- one was off to the side and he jumped onto it from time to time -- and his rapid-fire slapping is impressive and highlights "Come Downstairs and Say Hello." One would think he'd have to abandon the bongos to make the rock work at a place like the 9:30 Club, but Rosenworcel's got the hands to pull it off without sticks.
When Guster announced its last song, the crowd responded with the requisite chorus of boos, but Miller quickly promised an encore. Miller instructed the crowd to start singing "Two Points For Honesty" while the band left the stage and told them they'd be back to finish it. The audience paid proper respect, filling the room with their chorus and laughing at the moments where most people forgot the words, and after 90 seconds or so, the band returned in time for Rosenworcel to pick up at the bongo bridge. A blaxploitation guitar solo opened "Keep It Together," and the band finally left with a brief, all-acoustic, no-amp jam, bringing it back to their two-acoustics-and-bongos roots. It's a good gimmick, but it seems that a rocker would have been better for this set. Instead, the band floated away and the superfans swooned.
As a singer-songwriter of the folky, soft pop rock variety, Mason Jennings is a good fit to support Guster. But his trio leaned on slow and mellow songs, failing to approach rock and roll or grab the crowd. His following is strong and certainly was part of the reason Guster could sell out two nights at 9:30, but much of the Guster-loyal crowd was chatty and seemed unmoved. Which is a shame. Though a little more rock, or at least grit, would have been more compelling and maybe would have engaged the crowd better, his poetic lyrics deserved more attention, as does his voice -- Lou Reed's inflection implemented by a more natural singer.
And finally, a message for the 9:30 Club. When you've got a sold out show, staff the door better. The line was huge, not the biggest it's been, but it could have been a much smoother entry if there were two ticket takers and two hand stampers and if both ticket windows were used for will call. It was a sour start to what should have been a thoroughly pleasant evening. And it was avoidable.