I came up the escalator and above ground to a wet snow and an empty plaza. Half an hour before, I had been sitting in my room in my pajamas getting ready to attack a pretty boring day off to-do list, but when I caught a tweet that Guster was performing a free pop-up show in an hour, there was no question that my priorities were going to shift.
Now though, where was the show? Had a missed something? Read the time wrong? I scanned the grass and the surrounding few blocks for quite awhile, registering nothing, before my eyes settles on a group of people crowded around something I couldn’t quite see. That couldn’t be the concert though. Guster’s a big band. They’re really famous…aren’t they? I’d seen larger crowds than this one in this very spot, browsing a single booth at the farmers’ market.
As I approached, I began to hear music. Not only was this tiny, impromptu group of Bostonians huddled around four guys with musical instruments in fact one of my favorite bands live in concert, but they had almost no amplification. I was less than a hundred feet away before I heard anything, and when I did…
It was the intro to “Careful,” the first track off their 2003 album Keep It Together. If you know this song, you know that it’s placement as the first track on the record is no accident. The introduction is one of those pulsing, gearing up licks of music that eases you gently into the experience. I know lead vocalist Ryan Miller is just singing nonsense syllables at this point, almost a kind of vocal warm-up for the album, which in itself works well, but it’s always sounds to me like he’s saying, “on and on and on and on.”
I bought this album in 2004 at the local indie music shop we frequented in Worcester where I went to college (and where I’d seen the band perform the year before), but my real memories of listening to it are from 2007 and 2008, after I graduated. It was my road trip album, my talisman that helped me make the transition from my home town where I was living, back to Worcester where I returned every couple of weeks to visit a boy. That introduction feels just right to start a long drive. The rhythmic pulsing marking the passage of the first miles, the bittersweet, pensive lyrics getting you settled in for some quality time with your own thoughts.
“We were young, 21, all those years ago,” say the lyrics to “Do You Love Me?” the first single off Guster’s 2010 album Easy Wonderful. They’re a great band to see on a Throwback Thursday, and an even better band to see in the informal pop-up setting that they chose to play this afternoon. The crowd skewed a bit on the older side, with the median age in the early 30’s, clearly sharing some of the sentiments that I was, singing along with the older songs, not knowing the new material as well. The band sensed this, and, while playing new tunes to promote the album that was released just today, Evermotion, they buried them in the middle, ending the show on the crowd pleasing “Amsterdam,” which, and stay with me here, I realized is the antithesis of The Decemberists’ track from the same era, “The Engine Driver.” Both are songs about using writing as a tool for working through your emotions toward another person, but where Decemberist’s front man Colin Meloy’s twangy, emo tone of voice (and don’t get me wrong; I love this song) conveys a luxury of angst, Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner, especially when they sing in harmony as they do on this track, can’t help but rejoice.
This afternoon their love for their music was apparent from all the band members, as was their sense of having fun with an unconventional performance format. Adding to the whimsy of the day was a special guest performer, who played along on every track, Boston’s most beloved busker, Keytar Bear. Now, if you don’t know Keytar Bear, I almost don’t want to describe him, because it just doesn’t do him justice to say that he’s a guy (or a girl? I really have no idea.) who dresses up in a bear costume and plays the keytar for spare change all around the city. But that’s who Keytar Bear is. And more than a square on a Boston bingo card, this is a legitimately talented musician, who expertly tweaked old Guster favorites with some improv solos, much to the amusement of Ryan and Adam, who I was close enough to see exchange those magical interactions that musicians who work well together do, as they effortlessly vamped in the background of the solo, deciding on the fly how to end the song.
When the last tune was over, the crowd dissipated as quickly as it had come, with people who had stopped to see what all the fuss was about continuing on their way to wherever they had been going. A few people stayed and talked to the band, because we were all standing right there, and they were putting their own instruments away in the cold like regular people. The strangest part was, not even that many people were swarming them. I thought everyone would use the opportunity to at least snap selfies with the band. But apparently the class of person who goes to a free concert on a whim in the middle of a Thursday is not that kind of fan.
I walked right up to Ryan Miller and thanked him playing the show. He was polite, saying that he had had fun too, and thanking me for being there, but it didn’t feel profound. Ryan was just a guy putting away his guitar. In the end, I was glad I had had this opportunity. In a way it felt like redemption for the time I met Michael Pollan and completely froze, unable to come up with anything to tell him that Kathy Bates hadn’t already said to James Caan in Misery.
This is 2015 and, let’s face it, today didn’t bring me any closer to buying the new album. They didn’t even bother to have a merch table. But it might have made me more likely to buy a ticket the next time Guster plays a show that you actually have to pay for. Rock stars may be the people best equipped to deal with the concept of hawking one’s personal brand. And this is group of guys willing to play a show in the cold, for free, to 50 people, just for fun. I think that’s some pretty good branding.