By Victoria Welch
Staff Writer
Burlington Free Press
Aug. 14, 2006

Longtime love for Burlington or one band’s quest to take over the eastern shores of Lake Champlain? You be the judge.

Since its first Burlington show in 1995, Guster has systematically worked its way through the list of major Burlington-area performance spaces. It started with Club Toast, the much-loved Church Street venue now occupied by The Second Floor. St. Michael’s College, Memorial Auditorium, the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts and Higher Ground—both Winooski and South Burlington—followed.

Wednesday, the Boston-based alt-rock quartet will check the Champlain Valley Exposition off the list, leaving only Nectar’s, Club Metronome and the University of Vermont un-Guster-ized. The band has grown along the way from goofy Tufts University students to goofy platinum-selling recording artists, earning radio play with songs such as “Barrel of a Gun” and “Amsterdam.” Burlington has remained a much-loved tour stop, percussionist Brian Rosenworcel said during a phone call last week.

Rosenworcel said he and band members Ryan Miller, Adam Gardner and Joe Pisapia are looking forward to the Expo show, where they will share the bill with Ray LaMontagne and the Yonder Mountain String Band. The Essex Junction concert is part of a massive headlining tour supporting the release of “Ganging Up On the Sun,” Guster’s fifth studio album.

“We’re excited to come back. We love Burlington,” Rosenworcel said. With more than a decade of regular touring and large-scale shows to his name, Rosenworcel still recalls specific Vermont gigs—performing at St. Michael’s Ross Sports Center, headlining the Flynn and the infamous Higher Ground show at which an audience member swallowed a live goldfish on stage.

The band later received hate mail as word of the goldfish show spread, Rosenworcel said. He maintains that the audience member wanted to do it, by the way.

Longtime musical presence and a fanbase such as Guster’s—proponents describe it as passionate, opponents say fanatical—can take a toll on any band trying to maintain growth and development. There’s a tendency to pigeonhole the sound, and Guster is oft regarded as a guitar, voice and bongo affair. Jam band lite, if you will—although the songs actually more closely resemble the sharp sensibilities of the Beatles than the musical meanderings of Phish.

Rosenworcel said the material on “Ganging Up On the Sun” and the official addition of Pisapia to the band bucks the stereotypes of a band fully settled into a specific sound.

“I think it’s been great. Like with every Guster album, there’s a preconceived notion of what Guster’s supposed to sound like. This is the best batch of songs we’ve done; we’re very excited to be playing the songs,” he said. “We feel really good about the direction of the band. It feels unpredictable, liberated.”

Rosenworcel said he recognizes how rare it is to last as a band for more than 13 years and still feel at the bottom of a learning curve.

“We didn’t start out with our best record. Bands like the Violent Femmes, the Strokes—they’ll start out with a masterpiece and then spend the rest of their careers trying to match that,” he said. “We were 18. We’d just learned how to play our instruments, and we put together an album of songs we wrote.”

The early fanbase that responded to the music has been consistently joined by newcomers to the sound, including those who have heard the band’s latest single, “One Man Wrecking Machine,” on the radio. The band, likewise, has developed its approach to the philosophy of tour performances. The band’s tour bus runs on biodiesel; shows are powered by wind. The band began this spring to partner with Reverb, a nonprofit environmental group that brings an eco-village of booths and information to concertgoers.

Band members have likewise taken on new instruments, sounds and stage techniques.

“We’ve been touring for so long that we always try to put on a better show. We’re getting deeper with our lights now,” Rosenworcel said. “We’re always trying to entertain and now we have so many songs to choose from. It’s just playing well.”

“It’s also about keeping things interesting. Known for the occasional sight gag, frequent witty quips and self-deprecation, Guster has trained fans to expect the unexpected, perhaps even the utterly absurd.

“We are definitely motivated by our own sense of boredom,” Rosenworcel said with a laugh. “A lot of things come up, constant stimuli along the way.”

Just don’t expect any that involve goldfish.