Guster practices acoustic group therapy at the Calvin Theatre
Back when the Medford, Massachusetts-born band Guster first announced its plan to embark on an acoustic tour in 2012, not everyone (fans and media included) was sure what to expect. Sure the group was bringing along comedian Jeff Garlin (from “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) to open each show, but with a pair of string players in tow and the intent to also include question-and-answer sessions and audience requests in every performance, the potential was there for upcoming concerts to be anything but a laughing matter.
That potential blossomed during Thursday’s performance at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton. True, there was no Garlin present for this concert or round of touring, but after delivering a nearly two-hour set filled with adventurous song choices, unexpected moments, and yes even laughs, Guster delivered on what a packed house will surely list as a concert-to-remember for some time to come.
Opening its set with “Backyard” from the 2003 album Keep It Together, the group – featuring multi-instrumentalists Ryan Miller, Adam Gardner, Brian Rosenworcel and Luke Reynolds along with string players April Guthrie (cello) and Charlene Huang (violin) – showed an instantly apparent skill at merging its material with more classical instrumentation.
“We’re going to delve into the deep, dark history of Guster tonight,” said Miller to some light crowd laughter. “We start out on the rails, then we go off, then back on.”
That risk-taking approach didn’t take long to manifest itself. After performing a pleasant version of “Rise & Shine,” the band decided to tackle “Ruby Falls” a little-played number from the 2006 record Ganging Up on the Sun, and a song the group had only started playing with its string players this week. Despite such little preparation time, the track played beautifully with Gardner even deploying a “secret weapon” (i.e. trumpet) during the songs dramatic rise and fall.
Another obvious highlight from the evening’s entertainment was the show’s request section. Though Miller urged the audience to be “aggressive, but not too aggressive” after he dismissed the string players for this portion of the show, it was a lucky concertgoer named Crystal Chausse who scored the night’s biggest coup by being invited up on stage to play with Guster on the track “Demons” after she held up a sign with her request and spoke of her ability to play the number on a ukulele.
The performance, which also featured Crystal sharing a microphone with Gardner as she tackled vocal duties as well, won a standing ovation from the Calvin crowd and left Miller feeling like the show had already reached its peak.
“We are so completely fucked now,” he said after Crystal left the stage and was greeted with hugs and high fives upon her return to the audience. “I really don't know what to do right now. Should I go to a social media site and read some ones and zeros? That was organic.”
Watch Guster and Crystal Chausse perform "Demons" here:
But the band soldiered on, climaxing its request section with “I Hope Tomorrow Is Like Today” sung by the vocally-challenged Rosenworcel after an audience request to, “Let Brian sing for God’s sake.”
Then the string players returned and quickly made their presence felt as Guthrie added some tastefully hand-plucked cello notes to the urgent “What You Call Love.” While some crowd members still felt the need to shout requests at the band, Miller soon brought the Calvin to a hushed silence for the achingly quiet song “Empire State” and even later apologized to a fan he jokingly called an asshole for interrupting the number’s delicate intro.
Finally, after culminating its main set with a breakneck interpretation of “This Could All Be Yours” featuring Guthrie and Huang on backing vocals, Guster’s base quartet returned to the front of the stage for a true unplugged encore of “Jesus on the Radio.”
Watch an up close video of Guster’s "Jesus on the Radio" performance in Northampton here.
Earlier in the evening opening act Yellowbirds played an almost 40 minute set that included a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves the Sun” as well as a preview of the Guster string players, who helped out group founder/ former Leverett resident Sam Cohen (previously of Apollo Sunshine) and Guster’s own Luke Reynolds play several tracks of alternative rock and pop as filtered through Cohen’s own unique songwriting lens.