It’s hard to imagine that legendary rock critic Lester Bangs would be hanging out with 15-year-old kids and encouraging them to write for Rolling Stone and follow a fictional band obviously inspired by Led Zeppelin. This is, of course, the plot of the 2000 film Almost Famous, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as the famed writer himself. Artistic license aside, dedicated followers would agree that the film’s dramatization of Bangs is fairly accurate to both his music taste and his infamous crassness. His character is introduced to viewers as he insults The Doors with confidence, and instead sings the praises of Canadian rock band The Guess Who.
“They got the courage to be drunken buffoons, which makes them poetic!” he explains to a radio DJ. “Live American Woman? The most brilliant piece of gobleddy-goop ever!”
The Guess Who’s current iteration performed in the scenic town of Fontana, Wisconsin on Saturday night (for the Rock the Lake Music Festival) to a crowd of baby boomers and their folding lawn chairs. Only two members are part of The Guess Who’s “original” lineup—drummer Garry Peterson and bassist Jim Kale—have been with the band since its formation in the early 1960s. Singer Burton Cummings and guitarist-songwriter Randy Bachmann have been replaced with newer, noticeably younger models. (Both Cummings and Bachmann are still very alive but no longer perform with the band, which is as well-known for frequent personnel changes as it is for music.)
The band began the show with “Bus Rider,” far from the best choice to get the modest-sized crowd excited for the rest of the night. Singer Derek Sharp smirked, “There’s a lot of old people out there!” and it was hard to tell if he was poking fun at the crowd or at himself. “Laughing” had most of the crowd singing along, and it was admittedly charming to see a bunch of post-middle-aged people sing together, so carefree.
As the band moved through its set, older members revealed personal anecdotes to the audience about their histories as musicians. Peterson explained that he’s been playing drums for over 70 years and has been an on-and-off member of The Guess Who since the band’s very beginning. Hearing the stories of renowned rock stars straight from the source was an excellent bonus to the set.
Peterson and Kale’s performing abilities haven’t changed much since the band’s 1970s heyday, and they carry the tracks with the same ease as they did 50 years ago. Sharp’s voice is comparable to former singer Cummings, but his forced enthusiasm would have Lester Bangs rolling in his grave. His uncomfortable stage banter came off as shallow and simulated. On “Shaking All Over,” he encouraged the crowd to sing along, and hardly anyone obliged. The crowd’s silence was nearly as entertaining as the music.
The concert’s highlight may have been the venue itself. The Duck Pond Recreation Area is large, clean, and comfortable. Patrons brought their own chairs and blankets, and the “no carry-in” policy was, uh, not enforced very well. Located in a vacation town, the show felt like a vacation from the hustle and bustle of a traditional rock concert. The painlessness made the hour drive from Milwaukee worth every mile.
The band kept the whole crowd rocking during “Hand Me Down World,” the definite standout performance of the night. Despite the band’s current lineup being very far from the original, it was certainly a treat to hear such classic rock songs performed live. Before “Share The Land,” the band gave a short speech about acceptance, encouraging the audience to love everyone regardless of their race or gender. This was especially ironic to hear in small-town Wisconsin, a little slice of Trump’s America.
The band saved its biggest hits for the awkward encore. “These Eyes” was one of the weakest performances of the night as Sharp struggled to hit the right stride. His vocal performance was reminiscent of that Michael Cera scene in Superbad. They ended with “No Time,” a timelessly irresistible track performed with enthusiasm and ease. The audience continued to bop as the band closed the show.
“FONTANA, WISCONSIN! WE ARE THE GUESS WHO!”
Later in Almost Famous, Lester Bangs tells protagonist William, “It’s a shame you missed out on rock and roll. It’s over! You got here just in time for the death rattle, the last gasp, the last grope.” The movie is set in 1973, meaning William would have at least been able to see The Guess Who in all the band’s former glory.
Though the group performed well, it’s hard not to wonder if bands as legendary as The Guess Who still need to perform in 2017—especially under the same name with only two original members. It’s unlikely they’re doing it for the money seeing as they’re playing charity gigs in the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin. (Also, they’re definitely already rich.) The crowd was modest, if not on the smaller side. (Blame the location, maybe.)
Do bands like this need to be left in the past? It’s safe to assume Lester Bangs would think so. At least The Guess Who is carrying the slowly fading torch of rock and roll as long as they possibly can, even if the fire only burns brightly for the same crowd of people it did in the distant past.