Guided by songs

The area in front of the stage at Austin's Waterloo Park is one stray cigarette away from bursting into flames, a loose bed of hay piled on top of the park's green grass like an accident waiting to happen. A few days ago, when it was raining, the hay seemed like a good idea. Now, after two days of baking in the Texas sun, the park might as well be blanketed with lit fuses.

The potential danger of the situation has been duly noted by the thousands of people here for a free concert featuring Spoon, Damnations TX, The Gourds, and the band onstage now, Guided by Voices. Crowded together ankle-deep in the straw, they're either cautiously flicking their coffin nails into empty plastic cups or refraining from smoking altogether. It doesn't seem like the proper environment to be lighting up anyway, not even taking the several acres of fire hazards underfoot into account. There are too many kids around, dozens of them, building forts out of the hay, playfully throwing tiny handfuls of the dead grass at one another, making angels out of it with their flailing arms and legs. From a distance, it's just another rock concert on a Saturday night; up close, it could be an elementary school carnival.

Guided by Voices frontman Robert Pollard would be just as comfortable in either environment. After all, the 41-year-old Pollard spent much of his adult life teaching fourth grade in Dayton, Ohio, answering to "Mr. Rocker" after his students found out what his other job was. And for even more of his adulthood, Pollard has been a member of Guided by Voices, pursuing his rock-and-roll dreams even as his friends and family tried to persuade him to give it up. But he has persevered for almost 20 years, taking out loan after loan so he could continue writing songs that would, hopefully, make the young girls cry. Pollard just didn't have any idea how young those girls really were.

One of them is in the crowd this evening at Waterloo Park, a cute little girl who might be 4 years old, but can't possibly be a minute older. She's too busy with what's happening onstage to be bothered with the games the other children are playing. Pollard and the band barely pause for a swig of Rolling Rock and a breath as they barrel through songs from the forthcoming Do the Collapse (due in stores August 3), as well as two dozen others culled from its previous 10 albums and avalanche of singles. Perched on her father's shoulders, the girl belts out almost every song, her eyes squeezed so tight, they seem to disappear. She mimics Pollard's microphone twirling and leaping karate kicks as best she can from her seat five feet above the ground. Her father keeps trying to calm her, but she isn't having any of it, shaking him off like a pitcher who only wants to throw the fastball.

"Are you kidding me? And she knew the songs? See, I guess that's the appeal, from 2 years old to 80," Pollard says from his home in Dayton, when reminded of the concert more than two months later. "That's bizarre. I've had people tell me that their real young children know the words to some of our songs, some of the sillier ones, like "Pimple Zoo" [from 1995's Alien Lanes]." He laughs. "I guess that's flattering. You gotta make music for kids, but you want it to be mature enough where the parents like it too. I've had people come up, like a guy and his son, and they say, 'Man, your music brought us together. We weren't really close until now.'"

Guided by Voices wasn't just playing to the kids at Waterloo Park that night, and it wasn't trying to heal any differences between estranged family members either. The group was there, like so many other bands that come to the annual South by Southwest Music Festival every March, in search of a record contract. The band had been in a similar position before: In 1993, Guided by Voices performed live for the first time in six years, in New York at the New Music Seminar, a last-ditch effort that netted the band a record deal less than a year later. It worked again this time: TVT Records, home to such bands as XTC and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, offered Pollard and the band the contract they had been hoping for.

For the previous few months, Guided by Voices had been in limbo, told by Capitol Records that the album it had recorded for them with ex-Car Ric Ocasek, Do the Collapse, wasn't good enough, that there weren't any hits on it. As relations between Capitol and Matador Records--the New York-based indie that signed Guided by Voices in 1994 and had a distribution deal with Capitol until recently--became increasingly strained, it was clear that the album, the first GbV disc to appear on a major label, was never going to be released by Capitol. Matador was on the way back to its indie world, but the band wasn't going with it.