Concert review: Guster’s “We Also Have Eras” Tour | 03.15.24, The Pageant (with photo gallery)

Photo of Adam Gardner and Ryan Miller of Guster by Laura Jerele

Yes, you read that date right: I have been hopelessly in arrears when it comes to delivering this concert review. Guster has been quite busy in the intervening 10 weeks, too: they completed their 17-date “We Also Have Eras” tour (of which St. Louis was a part), they dropped their latest studio album (Ooh La La, the band’s ninth, and first in five years, came out just last week), and just this morning they performed a wonderful set for CBS Saturday Sessions (which you can watch here, here, and here, and you absolutely should). This August, they’ll start the month by headlining Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony, then the very next week they’ll host the latest edition of their On the Ocean festival (August 9-11 in Portland, ME), including a full album set celebrating the 25th anniversary of their 1999 breakthrough Lost and Gone Forever. 2024 is a busy year for Guster, and a very good year to be a Guster fan.

After reading that paragraph, you’re probably either thinking “Yeah, I already knew all that” or “Who is this band I’ve never heard of that can do TV appearances, headline Red Rocks with a symphony, and throw their own annual festival?” Well, as Guster’s Ryan Miller so accurately put it in their CBS Saturday Morning interview, “It feels like, in a way, either you don’t know us, or you really like us.” If you’re part of the former group, here’s the short version: the band formed as a trio in the dorm rooms of Tufts University in 1991, their songs built around a busking-friendly setup of Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner on acoustic guitars and harmonizing vocals with Brian Rosenworcel on bongos and other hand percussion. The band grew a following among fans of the poppier end of the jam band spectrum (Dave Matthews Band, Dispatch, O.A.R.), blew up among the college crowd with the aforementioned Lost and Gone Forever, added a fourth member, blossomed into a stellar alterna-pop band, and grew into one of the most consistently fun live acts walking the earth.

The long version? Well, that’s what the “We Also Have Eras” tour is. Taking a cue from you know who, the tour is a march through Guster’s career and songbook in chronological order. In Guster’s case, this took the form of an actual play (or cabaret, as Miller put it in that CBS interview), with skits (acted by the band themselves) that tell the band’s story and serve as a bridge from “era” to “era,” paired with simple stage backdrops and a bevy of costume changes (so many that a manual costume counter was placed stage right). It’s an interesting dichotomy in that Guster’s songs often have a somber or melancholy air to them, but they’ve always been cut-ups onstage, and their humor really came to the fore with these endearingly amateurish between-song sketches.

The show opens in a Tufts University dorm room with just Miller and Gardner seated on what they would later jokingly refer to as “the acting bench” at center stage, recreating their first forays into songwriting and performing what would be the title track on their 1994 debut album, Parachute. Rosenworcel then joined them onstage, carrying bongos that he joked he did not actually know how to play, and the now-trio performed another Parachute track, “Fall in Two. Thus the band’s original incarnation Gus was formed, Gardner even wearing an original Gus T-shirt. Gus were then informed that another band was using the name Gus, so Gardner taped a sign to his shirt that said “TER” on it. Officially named, Guster then entered their Goldfly era, performing “Demons” and “Airport Song,” the only two songs from this era that have continued to consistently show up in Guster setlists up to the present day. (I, for one, would love if “Great Escape” and “Medicine” still got more play, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Next came the Lost and Gone Forever era, where the band recreated meeting and working with producer Steve Lillywhite, the legendary producer behind most of the best of U2’s discography along with Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Dave Matthews Band, and, really, too many classics to mention. In an unexpected turn, the band played “What You Wish For,” “Two Points for Honesty,” and “Center of Attention,” favorites of the diehard fans to be sure, but not the biggest hits off the album. They saved one of those songs for the encore, but LAGF’s other two stone-cold classics—“Barrel of a Gun” and “Fa Fa,” the two songs I have heard at every Guster show I’ve ever seen—went unplayed. Most unexpected.

Then came the Joe era, the era where Joe Pisapia joined as the “Fourth Guster.” Pisapia’s presence rounded out Guster’s sound and turned them from a folky band to a band that could rock in a traditional sense, even if they’ve continued to do it in their own idiosyncratic way. Now—spoiler alert!—Pisapia left the band on friendly terms back in 2010 and has since been replaced with Luke Reynolds, so as Reynolds finally joined the band onstage for this era, he did so with a giant Joe Pisapia mask for the first song the band wrote with Pisapia, the banjo-driven “Jesus on the Radio.” (The song, of course, opens with the lyric “5:00 AM, March 16th,” which means St. Louis missed having Guster in town *on* Jesus On The Radio Day by one day. Totally jealous of you, Atlanta!)

As the band starts to explore the possibilities that come with being a four-piece, Miller comes to the band brandishing some crazy new instrument he just discovered: a bass guitar. Similarly, Rosenworcel is caught hiding contraband he treats as embarrassing as if he was a teenager caught with a girlie mag: actual drumsticks to save his poor, battered hands. Their newfound instrumental repertoire filled out the sound on two more tracks from 2003’s Keep It Together (the loping, bass-driven “Diane,” the ornately downbeat “In the Backyard”) and a trio from 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun (the achingly hopeful “Hang On,” the sunny conga-driven “Manifest Destiny,” the hypnotically swirling love song “Satellite”), broken up in the middle with a giddy cover of Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers.”

Next came part of Guster lore even I wasn’t familiar with: Guster’s label, desperate for a hit, forced an outside pop producer on them. To say it did not go well is an understatement. The fact that the producer is personified onstage by a literal devil is a hilarious overstatement. Here, the band reaches a crossroads: frustrated by the lack of control, “Joe” quits the band, Ryan withdraws, Adam spends his time running his charity. That leaves poor Rosenworcel, known by fans everywhere as “The Thunder God,” wondering where he goes from here. He, of course, does his wondering through song, in the form of “Thunder Song,” the one tune original to the Eras tour. Rosenworcel gives the song his Broadway best, which is especially amazing because he is emphatically not a singer and has up until this tour only warbled his way through ironic covers like “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” And yet here he is, heart on sleeve, pondering in song whether his band has a future, wondering what the point is as he points out the insane number of bands that opened for Guster and have since gone on to win Grammys (John Mayer, Maroon 5, Train, the Avett Brothers, Sara Bareilles…). The song—which, thank god, some kind soul captured and put on YouTube—really brought the house down. There was nowhere to go from here but…intermission!

In Act 2, Guster, of course, get their mojo back, taking back the reins and recording their album at Pisapia’s house, proving their excitement with the joyous Act 2 opener “Do You Love Me” (on most days, my favorite Guster song, and they really nailed the performance here). In the skit that follows, Miller enthuses how great the sessions for 2010’s Easy Wonderful went and how they should write and record every album at Pisapia’s house, but it is not to be: Joe is worn out and leaves the band. Enter Luke Reynolds (well, he’s been onstage for a while, of course, but he takes off the mask and plays himself now) for more off of Easy Wonderful and the band’s two albums with Reynolds, 2015’s Evermotion and 2019’s Look Alive. There’s less “plot” driving this era (the one skit involved the band getting in a tiff with Dave Butler, the evening’s narrator as well as occasional auxiliary band member) but the latter two albums definitely set themselves apart musically from the other eras, having more of an electronic edge to them, with an emphasis on cool (as in temperature) synthesizers and beats that sound almost mechanical. Each of these albums was represented by two tracks, and the song choices split the difference between the band’s personalities, picking one bubblier song from each (“Never Coming Down,” “Don’t Go”) to go with one more mechanical song each (“Endlessly,” “Overexcited”). Up until the release of Ooh La La, “Endlessly” was probably my favorite song of the Reynolds era, and it got a nice, driving, warm performance here, showing it as a spiritual successor to “Satellite.” The album Look Alive is a nut I’ve yet to crack, however, and the weird blippy beat of “Overexcited” was the only tune of the night that didn’t really grab me.

Of course, it had to happen: a COVID era. A few years back, Guster made a short film about their COVID era that’s worth a watch, but for the Eras tour, COVID wasn’t so much a downer as a springboard to what everyone was most excited to hear: a preview of the then-still-forthcoming Ooh La La. Hearing the uplifting “Keep Going” and the pretty, gently plucked “Black Balloon” set expectations high, but I’m happy to report that Ooh La La is a great listen, Guster’s best album since 2010’s Easy Wonderful. Act 2 then wrapped with a staple of nearly every Guster show of the last 20 years, “Come Downstairs and Say Hello,” a perfect palette cleanser that followed the gentle vibes of “Black Balloon” with its own spacious opening section, only to take a gradual shift mid-song then burst like fireworks set off by Rosenworcel’s emphatic, powerful playing.

The show wrapped up with an encore “campfire” set, the foursome seated shoulder-to-shoulder on the “acting bench,” illuminated by a fake campfire as the rest of the stage darkened for acoustic performances of two of the band’s very best songs, the Lost and Gone Forever favorite “Happier” and the strummy romantic kiss-off “Amsterdam.” Two-and-a-half hours after taking the stage, every era had been explored and the night came to a satisfying end.

Whether you don’t know them or whether you already really like them, the “We Also Have Eras” show was an absolute success. It’s probably a pipe dream, but I’d love to see the set captured in a Stop Making Sense-style concert film. It’s not only a great primer of the band’s music and its history, there’s also so much heart and humor and so, so, so many amazing songs. I’ve done my best to describe it here, but we can only hope it’s documented for posterity. | Jason Green

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