It is 8 p.m. and for the first time in weeks, standing outside is bearable. The wind and rain that has been consistently attacking the region has taken a night off. I am in Manchester, birthplace of new wave - the introspective, almost angry music, piloted mostly on the council estate rumblings of the venerable Joy Division and its successor New Order. It is easy to be angry in a town like Manchester. Northern England epitomizes the working class, as most towns, including Leeds - the one I live in, have functioned primarily as lower-class mill and port hubs during the past century. By writing about the gritty arduousness of the daily growl, Joy Division and company made this area musically famous, creating beauty within the rows of identical flats, polluted mills, and inebriated, working class individuals. Manchester and its sister cities like Leeds and Liverpool are the heart of England. These cities characterize the rough, grimy edge of England. Still, like a Durian, sweetness envelopes the folds beneath their thorny outer complex, as evidenced by Joy Division's gorgeous gloom.
But I am not in Manchester for local entertainment. While The Complete Stone Roses and New Order cover bands dot the centuries-old watering holes in the city centre, I am here to see Guster - a band that embodies the Manchester ethic in ways, whilst masking it in layers of clever, melodically-accentuated pop rock. Guster's America could not be further from Joy Division's Manchester. With the addition of multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapia, Guster is now a quartet, and their fan base paradoxically juxtaposes the North's council estate dwellers that first recognized Ian Curtis and the gang, mostly hovering around American college campus squares rather than meeting for a pint of bitter amidst the sweat in a steel factory. In addition, Guster constantly shares the stage with consonant, positively-charged bands, playing more with Maroon5 and John Mayer than with Nick Cave or Scritti Politti. Still, dismiss the facade and peer underneath, and you will find that under Guster's harmoniously jovial scaffold is an introspective bunch, bent on writing highly personal love ballads and anger poetry to the lyrical tune that caused Mr. Curtis to seek out his own personal final solution. While Ian Curtis embodied the soul of a Mancunian and Guster does not, do not let the chirpy choruses and sarcastic stage banter fool you - this is a deeply pensive group of songwriters.
Guster (l to r: Gardner, Miller, Rosenworcel) by E. Weinberg
"I don't like funny bands that much, and I grew up primarily listening to bands from this city," responds guitarist and principle lyricist Ryan Miller in the basement of the Night & Day Café - the setting for their inaugural introduction to Manchester. "We are not trying to be comedians in our music, but we are simply sarcastic people to begin with. It keeps the concert experience really light. It is interesting because if you don't listen to our lyrics, then you may never know that side of our personality exists because the morose, introspective side of our band is not as evident. We are definitely not mopey, but it gives our songs more weight."
Ryan Miller :: Guster by Tony Stack
8:15 p.m. rolls around, and the doors finally swing open at the Night & Day - a venue that sweats history, from the knife-imprinted etchings on the walls to the mass of posters clogging every nook and cranny of advertising space. Located in the bustling Northern Quarter in Manchester's city centre, an area that is filled with as many broken windows and burnt-out buildings as entrancing art mosaics carved into the sidewalk and murals hanging from those aforementioned buildings, the Northern Quarter is the central hub for artistic expression in Manchester. Just a short stroll through its high street spews Mancunian attitude: a culmination of hip housed within anger, expression within silence, and beauty within seedy. Like Guster and the music birthed in Manchester, the aggressiveness of the city, while outwardly present, is blinded by an infuriated sense of the melodic and the desire to create art.
After a short opening set by talented Canadian singer-songwriter Steve Reynolds, which was highlighted by tales of murder in Belfast and anti-Bush rants, the members of Guster appear and fiercely engage in a ninety minute set drenched with the soul of Manchester. While the melodies are catchy, melodically light, and poppy, the lyrics are dark, somber, melancholic, and highly-engaging. Lyrics like 'take this bitter pill / is it easy to swallow' in "Amsterdam" and 'bring about the morning bell / be careful that you hurt yourself' in "Careful" and 'tell her there is not a chance / that you are ever going to change the world' in "Red Oyster Cult" engulfed the set, as each poppy, sing-a-long chorus is garrulously drenched with more Nick Cave than Maroon5. Older tunes like "Barrel of a Gun" and "I Spy," both depressing relationship-gone-awry ballads, dot the setlist, fed on the attitude of the city and the band's seriousness towards their canon. In addition, the introduction of politicized libretto peered its brooding head, evident on new tunes "Captain" and "You're My Satellite," both off their upcoming release tentatively titled Yes and Yes. Transposing Curtis' anger with the government into their own personal disgust of the decisions currently being made at home, both alt-country laced tracks build on the band's introspective foundation, further moving their mature lyrics into new directions. Finally, Keep it Together's magnum-opus "Come Downstairs and Say Hello," one of the band's most inventive musical and lyrical numbers, concluded the tribute to Manchester, capping off a satisfying evening of tuneful pop and melodic rock, wrapped around an innate lyrical darkness.
Guster by Elizabeth Weinberg
After wiping the sweat off my face (the venue was steaming all night) and relaxing at the bar with a few local Mancunians who were absolutely entranced by what they had just experienced, the quartet made their way to the bar to grab a drink. With several star-crossed eyes looking in, mostly from American exchange students ecstatic at the treat of seeing Guster in a venue that holds less than 200 people, the five of us sat down and chatted.