It was about 11:00PM on a warm, late-summer night last August at Thompson’s Point in Portland, Maine, the smell of salt air and spilled IPAs still present, as the starlit sky guided a muddy path for an eclectic group of giddy patrons departing the just-concluded concert by the band Guster. I was meandering slowly with my wife, Laurie, an insane Guster fan, but she wasn’t speaking and I grew unsure if she was dazed or just blissful. Suddenly, she grabbed hold of my arm, spun towards me, and with an intense sparkle in her eye, declared: “That was the best anything ever.” Not the best concert, or the best evening, you understand, but the best anything. Her euphoric hyperbole concerning a Guster-related occasion seemed understandable, though. After all, we hadn’t seen them perform since as far back as…the night before.
My wife is an avowed and proud Gusterrhoid (as the Grateful Dead has it’s Deadheads, Guster has it’s Gusterrhoids). Her vehement dedication and adoration of the band is without limits – Kramer might describe it as “unbridled enthusiasm” – and that fervor lacks any approachable comparison among another musical act. For the most part when it comes to Laurie’s listening habits, she genuinely enjoys music but it’s generally a passive act, whereas I’m like Daniel Stern explaining the intricacies of his record collection to Ellen Barkin in Diner (hopefully, not quite as belligerently); when I have music on, it’s not to provide background for something else, that’s what I’m doing. However when it comes to Guster, she flips that script: she’s Daniel Stern, and she’s…intense…passionate…maybe maniacal? (but, unlike Stern, purely in a jubilant, ecstatic way).
So “why” Guster? And “how” Guster? Well the “how” was entirely by chance. Years ago some CD’s were up for grabs in my office, as was often the case, from boxes that were sent over from record companies. One of those was Guster’s 2006 album “Ganging Up On The Sun” and I recognized a single song, ‘Satellite.’ For some reason I just thought Laurie might like it, so I brought that one home. It was far from certain she’d get past that one tune to the rest of the record, let alone go back through the four albums that preceded it, and certainly not that the band would become her happy obsession, which it has, for certain. And so to “why”, and I’ve thought a lot about this. There are really only two things to like about Guster: their fabulous, jangly, melodic indie pop/rock musical masterpieces, and the clever, offbeat, relatable, and often inspirational lyrics and messages that their songs contain. Those two things. Oh, well, I guess a third would be the quirky, lovable, intelligent and delightful guys that make up the band. And then there’s their valuable activism in support of other touring artists through environmental consciousness and sustainability engagement, so wait, that’s another. Plus, I can’t forget their utterly endearing and ceaseless goofiness on stage and in all manner of interactions with their fans.¹ But then also the wonderful, accepting community of crazed Gusterrhoid people that all those other things have helped to inspire, so I suppose that’s really…um, I think I’ve lost count. Apparently there are a whole lot of reasons to like Guster (and I really only scratched the surface).
And in case it wasn’t already obvious, I’m a huge enthusiast too, as is our whole family: our daughter Mary’s college room is plastered with Guster posters, pictures and paraphernalia, and her zealousness shades in fanaticism only if compared to her mom’s; and Max, our musician son whose tastes run to punk, prog, free jazz, experimental art rock, and ultra-complex math rock, comes to Guster shows and appreciates their soaring melodies, their incredible vocal harmonies, and their versatile, instrument-swapping musicality. We’ve probably seen them about a dozen times – in New York’s Central Park, Boston’s House Of Blues, a dinky theater in Providence, an outdoor festival along the Hudson river, a hipster club in Philadelphia, Port Chester’s historic Capitol Theater, multiple occasions at NYC’s Beacon Theater, and at that aforementioned concert on the Portland waterfront – the second night of two consecutive shows as part of Guster’s prodigious and now-annual “On The Ocean” weekend, which also included a lobster bake, a minor league baseball game, song requests propelled via band issued ping-pong balls, a partnership with a local brewery producing an event-specific On The Ocean IPA, the band’s foray through the concert crowd in a one-dimensional canoe, a rousing cover version of kitschy ’80’s classic ‘Come On Eileen’, and on-stage appearances by the eight Guster family kids. Guster, probably as much as anything within our own 4-person family, has become a peerless, long-term bonding experience. And what could make them more lovable than that.
The three founding band members – Ryan Miller, Adam Gardner, and Brian Rosenworcel – bonded too, after meeting at a freshman orientation program at Tufts University, and began playing publicly as a trio just two months later (their first album, “Parachute,” was recorded while they were still in college). That was in 1991. Now eight studio albums (numerous live ones) and 28 years later, they remain faithfully intact, the only lineup changes being additions – of Joe Pisapia for a 7-year stint, and then Luke Reynolds from 2010 to the present. That, too, is a family unit, albeit a winningly eccentric one that happily labels themselves “high-functioning weirdos.” Our family and theirs have even crossed over and met each other a couple times: I once had a friendly post-show “nose off” with Ryan – his was deemed a tad bigger, but it was close; and at a Beacon Theater meet-and-greet where you would have thought from my wife’s exuberance that she was meeting John, Paul, George & Ringo rather than Ryan, Adam, Brian & Luke.
Guster’s live shows remain as consistently joyous and distinctively entertaining as ever. Laurie & I saw them this spring back at the Beacon and along with their regular repertoire of rockers, ballads, and sing-alongs was, per usual, mixed with Ryan’s nightly ad-libbed tune, plunking a child’s xylophone, and his Pac-Man patterned suit; Adam’s crochet-covered guitar; Brian’s bare-handed drumming (earning him the nickname “Thundergod”) and intentionally bad trombone usage; Luke pickin’ the banjo; and band members rotating instruments for seemingly every song before eventually fake-leaving for encores where they “hide” in plain sight on stage. Yet their set list of decades of crowd-favorite hits now also includes some new material, emanating from their recently released 2019 album, “Look Alive.” We had pre-ordered it (a special edition autographed by the band, of course), but at first, perhaps driven by nostalgia, we weren’t quite sure it was…Guster-worthy. The band has, after all, undeniably explored some new musical directions on this latest record, producing a more electro-pop collection with layers of synths heavy in the mix, and even touches of darker, psychedelic experimentation. But then after repeated listens, it just started to make sense – the one moment in particular was upon listening/watching the extended-version lyric video for the single “Overexcited” in which Ryan comically employs a faux British accent, and it all auspiciously clicked in for me. Of their recently expanded sonic terrain, Ryan himself commented, “Each record of ours has been a step somewhere and I feel like this is our most contemporary-sounding record. So I hope longtime fans respect our musical journey and our musical ambitions, which are significant. Maybe the only way to be a band for 25-plus years is to change your sound because if you just kept making the same records over and over again then people probably aren’t going to keep hanging around.” Totally valid. And fair. But honestly, guys, we were going to keep hanging around no matter what.
All of the forgoing makes it remarkably difficult for me to recommend but one song to presumed unfamiliar Guster newbies. But if I had to choose one favorite Guster album it would be 2010’s bit of brilliance “Easy Wonderful”, and if I had to pick one most beloved song off that record (with their particularly silly splendor on full display on the band’s accompanying video) it would be this one: ‘Do You Love Me.’ Guster, for Laurie and a small legion of crazed Gusterrhoids, the answer will forever be a resounding and delirious ‘Yes!’
¹Just one example: Early on they held a fan contest, the winners being chosen to go in studio with the band where they were conducted in 14 seconds of whistling for the song ‘All The Way Up To Heaven’
“Diner” – the record collection (“You never ask me what’s on the flip side!”)