But there they were Sunday, in the first of two sold-out shows at the Empty Bottle, one of America's great lost rock bands again preaching to the converted. But this was GBV with a difference. Gone is the romanticized notion of a bunch of middle-age slackers out for a weekend lark. In its place is a retooled rock juggernautPollard surrounded by a bunch of partyers who can play instead of just carousethat sounds like the Who in their early two-minute singles phase: Townshend's "The Seeker" reborn as Pollard's "Twilight Campfighter."
Pollard and company may not have nearly the fame of the Who at their height, but they act is if nobody bothered to tell them. They play like they're auditioning for their place in rock history, ready to take their place next to the giants. Their big anthems, from "Tractor Rape Chain" to "I Am a Scientist," rained down in bursts of pithy exuberance and lit up the well-oiled crowd; all told, an astonishing four-dozen songs blitzed past in more than two hours.
A few old tropes are still in place: Pollard and the boys still kneel at the rock 'n' roll altar of cigarettes and alcohol. The singer even made light of the subject in a new song, "How's My Drinking?" a self-directed warning that he blithely dismissed. But the songs never let him or the audience down, and he brayed those concrete-rattling choruses behind a stadium-worthy barrage: the lethal drum flurries of top-fight new recruit Jon McCann, the twin guitar leads of precision surgeon Doug Gillard and the damaged but dangerous Nate Farley, and the wrecking-ball bass of Tim Tobias.
The night was distinguished by a bold act of hubris: The band played its new, as yet unreleased album, "Isolation Drills," in its entirety to open the show. Already, it not only sounds like the band's most consistent workeven a 90-second fragment such as "Sister I Need Wine" seemed more a fully finished song than one of Pollard's notorious throwawaysbut its most introspective. With the exception of a few archetypal Pollard song titles such as "Pivotal Film," the new tunes are a prettier, more broodingly personal bunch, less concerned with obtuse wordplay and more focused on emotional detail.
"I want to reinvent you now," Pollard declared on "Skills Like This," and it was as if he were singing about GBV. Whether he succeeds will be up to the marketplace, but the band have plugged along for 15 years without the attention of a mass audience. What matters is that Pollard not only seems to enjoy what he does, he performs like he equates it with life itself.