Guster | 11.21.03 (Guitarist Ryan Miller's Birthday) | Fillmore Auditorium | Denver, CO

Guster seems hell-bent on defying the notion that "nice guys finish last." This is a band that has paid their dues, and after being together more than ten years, is now poised to enter the airwaves. Their attitude remains the same, which is refreshing: the band recognizes their own limitations, but seeks to accentuate their strengths while spicing things up with an occasional dash of humor.

Vocalists/guitarists Adam Gardner and Ryan Miller first met with percussionist Brian Rosenworcel at Tufts University in 1991. At the time the band was two acoustic guitars with Rosenworcel on the bongo drums, playing on street corners. They stayed close to home, building up a loyal fan base that eventually named them "Best Live Band in Boston" for 1997 (coincidentally the same year that Ryan Miller urinated into a Nantucket Nectars bottle while playing a party at Princeton).

From these humble roots the band has finally begun to gather momentum. 1998 brought an appearance on the Conan O'Brien show. The following year: Woodstock. The band toured with the likes of Dave Matthews and Bob Dylan, and now AOL-Time Warner is pushing their latest studio release. Guster still manages to retain an "underdog" image about themselves with their down-to-earth approach. A perfect example: a few months ago at their CD release party in which 45,000 people turned out (their largest crowd before that was 7,000), the mayor of Boston introduced them as "my good friends 'Goose-ster.'"

If Jack Black has taught us anything, it is that a band is the product of their influences. It is a rare occasion that the band can unanimously agree on a CD, but the discs that are in their changer include Tortoise, Stevie Wonder, Lambchop, and The Smiths. It is difficult to pinpoint a "sound" for Guster, as guitarist Ryan Miller explains: "The way we toured and the way we sold our own CD's... we were marketed as a 'jamband,' but we don't improvise ever. That was always weird for us to be there, and then writing pop songs that you can sing along to... I like to say we write three-and-a-half minute pop songs." Fair enough.

Miller and Gardner are not breaking any new ground on the guitar, and freely admit it. As Miller points out, "People have been writing pop songs for years, and we ran out of chords thirty five years ago, but we're just putting new words over them... I don't really consider myself a guitar player... None of us are particularly great at our instruments, although Brian is kind of an innovator in some ways. I think our focus has really been on writing melodies, and that's what I'm really good at. I would never consider myself a good guitar player or singer."

Given that backdrop, I had relatively low expectations going into the show. If this was going to be another O.A.R.-ish experience, I was prepared to take off early. As Guster took the stage, the composition of the band itself runs counter to typical three minute pop fluff: no bass player, two rhythm guitarists, and a percussionist.

Percussionist Brian Rosenworcel is what truly separates Guster from hundreds of other pop acts. Gardner and Miller handle the vocals and form the rhythm of the band, while Rosenworcel takes the lead in the songs. Rosenworcel only recently got a drum kit to complement his percussion set-up, but spent the vast majority of the night without drumsticks in his hands. The man was slapping out everything with his bare hands: cymbals, drums, everything! Despite using hockey tape before shows, he still finishes each night with cuts and bruises on his hands.

While Gardner and Miller barely pass muster as guitarists, their sense of melody is remarkable. They have a polished tone that doesn't sound rehearsed. While they claim to not jam any of their songs, they do occasionally venture out into a minute-long interplay between the three band members, with the guitars churning out some catchy, clever riffs.

While Rosenworcel is clearly the M.V.P. of the band, it is worth discussing the fourth "member" of the band. We didn't even notice he was on the stage until halfway through the show, as they had him virtually hidden behind the lights. He was so incredibly low in the sound mix that it was nearly impossible to hear him. From what could be discerned from our close vantage point, he sat back and didn't really play much at all. Remember how Arrested Development had that old guy in the rocking chair sitting onstage? The old man brought more to the table than this keyboardist did. In the band's posters at the merch table, he isn't even pictured. A picture says a thousand words, so I'll leave it at that.

The most unexpected part of the night was enjoyed by all: a truly great jam of "Chariots of Fire." This was the only song that the keyboardist could be heard, and to his credit he didn't botch it. The band was clearly enjoying themselves onstage, half-laughing as they went through the changes in the song. A couple tunes later, a birthday cake was brought out to Ryan Miller, who blew out the candles and thanked the crowd for making his birthday a memorable one.

Guster has a great attitude about themselves, their music, and their fans, which is evident in their performance. That's why they have been able to build up a loyal following through their live shows, a feat most often accomplished by the so-called jambands. Guster has taken a different path, but their live act speaks for itself. With Rosenworcel paving the way, Guster has grown in popularity on its own terms and marches ahead to the beat of their own drummer, gaining new fans with each live performance.

Words by: Nathan Rodriguez
Images by: Tony Stack
JamBase | Colorado
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[Published on: 12/2/03]

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