Guster played the House of Blues Saturday night to tour Evermotion, its first album in five years. Though the album marks a new step for the band, it didn't stand a chance next to the risk-laden inventiveness of Kishi Bashi's set.
Much of Guster's appeal is that they come off as nice guys who make deeply satisfying music. The "good guys" of alt-rock weren't interested in what's cool or revolutionary, or in following the pristine persona of the major label band they're expected to be. Last night, Guster eschewed smoke-and-mirrors for a solid glass windowpane that highlighted their sincerity and likability, but that translated to tame rock music.
Guster made a conscious attempt to remake itself on its latest album Evermotion. On "Simple Machine," the band sings, "I'm not a simple machine / I have become something else." Though this is probably not meant as a band-wide mission statement, it's a pretty apt summary for what they seem to be doing on the album. Guster enlisted The Shins' keyboardist Richard Swift to produce Evermotion, and they've made a definitive turn towards expansive soundscapes and richer sonic texture. It's a nice attempt to do so but was eclipsed by Kishi Bashi and his ability to throw caution to the wind.
Listening to Guster feels like taking a trip back to 2005; Kishi Bashi sounds like traveling to 2040 and hopping into another dimension. I last saw Kishi Bashi perform at One Eyed Jacks in 2013. On that tour, he was supported by a backing band that fleshed out each song into an expansive world. This time around, he performed solo. While the performance wasn't as overwhelmingly exquisite and lush, it was a cerebral performance of unadultered, untethered joy.
In between songs, he improvised a beatbox riff, stopped to play it back and record it. He apologized for being unprofessional but admitted that the spontaneous inspiration informed his writing process, and that the stem might make it onto his next album. Inspiration can strike at any time, and it was nice to see him blur the lines between pop music creation and performance.
Kishi Bashi's performance was a series of lightning strikes. Even at his songs' most confectionary-sweet moments, he doesn't rest upon hooks. The songs stretch themselves into dozens of musical ideas and acrobatic string arrangements. On "The Ballad of Mr. Steak" (an electropop song about a piece of steak that also includes the line "booty booty shaky shake"), he careens between classical compositions and space-pop ebullience. Live, he added a drum pad and was looping the numbers "1,2,3,4" in the chorus when he accidentally erased the track, cutting his dance party short. He apologized for getting so excited and messing up the song. Though well-oiled pop music dominates most of the contemporary pop music offerings, Kishi Bashi put a lot on the line. Even when it didn't come through, the crowd appreciated his willingness to take risks.
Conversely, Guster didn't have much left to prove, and their risks didn't seem as dire. After 24 years as a band, they're the definitive trio of nice, environmentally conscious guys writing pop hooks inside rock songs inside a bongo beat without any pretense. Though they're now in their forties with marriages and children, they didn't seem jaded by their legacy at all. The band members made easy jokes with one another and grinned ear-to-ear, genuinely pleased with a particular guitar riff or when guitarist Adam Gardner added trumpet to a song. Guster played a thorougly enjoyable set full of thoughtfully crafted rock songs.
Throughout the set, I kept imagining myself downing beers and a reuben sandwich with these guys--an enjoyable, satisfying (hypothetical) experience to be sure, but not one that felt revolutionary or outrageously compelling. Guster made a good case for being satisfied with what you've got and who you are. Sure, someone else out there is leading a space fantasy rebellion, but if what you're doing is good, that can be enough.