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By Tom Murphy
John Kerry only wishes he was in Guster. Sure, the Massachusetts senator hasn't done too shabbily on his own merits. But when it comes to building a rabid base of loyal supporters, he could learn a trick or two from his Boston neighbors.
Hordes of Guster admirers follow the band from city to city, taking in shows, composing Guster haiku, preserving witty stage banter as MP3s and swapping bootlegs like spit at a makeout party. The level of dedication is an anomaly in a throwaway consumer culture, so how exactly does Guster do it?
"Um, I don't know," says percussionist and bongo player Brian Rosenworcel. "People identify with us. There's not much imaging going on or too many facades to get through, so it's easy to feel connected to us, I guess."
Indeed, the trio resembles three former frat boys in town for a college reunion. Weekend warriors dusting off their guitars to get the band back together for old times' sake. Anything but the touring machines they are. Anything but an outfit who drew 50,000 people to Boston's City Hall Plaza last June for a free concert.
They're just too...normal.
But the group's easygoing nature extends to "Team Guster," the auxiliary touring crew that has its own section on the Guster website. The band and its crew travel in a single bus while on the road, which creates "a big family," according to Guster merch girl Allyson Fief. And being a member of the extended family gives insiders like Fief a chance to give an outsider's perspective on the secret to the group's success.
"Every person I've taken to see them live is blown away," Fief says. "The energy from their live show is just amazing. They've done Leno, they've done Letterman. They've done these things, but they're still down to earth. They're making music for their fans. I'm sure they would love to get a gold record, but they do it for the passion of it. When you see them live, you feel it."
Guster's three members -- Rosenworcel and guitarists/ singers Adam Gardner and Ryan Miller -- began honing their concert chops as Gus in a dorm room at Tufts University in the Boston suburb of Medford in 1992. They soon began selling homemade tapes and busking in Harvard Square, a magnet for the quirky independents who aligned perfectly with their free-form folk aesthetic and penchant for offbeat covers.
Kenta Koga watched one of those informal Harvard Square gigs and became an instant fan.
"When we got there, Guster -- or actually Gus -- was already playing and had a small crowd around them," Koga, who is now the webmaster of guster.net, writes in an e-mail. "The first thing that struck me was probably Rosenworcel's percussion setup, but what really got me hooked was that they covered Nine Inch Nails' 'Down in It.' At the time, I was wearing an NIN T-shirt. I'm not sure if one of the bandmembers saw my shirt and figured I'd enjoy the cover or if it was just coincidence. Either way, I was hooked.
"Since my friends and I were all still in high school, with barely enough money to afford tokens for the T [the Boston subway], we each pitched in a buck and bought their demo tape," Koga continues. "I spent a lot of time listening to that demo tape. It was definitely time for something new ...not too gritty, not too poppy: Guster."
The act's latest disc, Keep It Together, certainly shocked fans who, like Koga, grew up on the acoustic, rootsy version of Guster. The album is anchored by a jangly kiss-off to an ex ("Amsterdam"), while R.E.M. and Beatles-influenced nuggets abound. The record is further augmented by mellotron and keyboards ("Backyard"), bass ("Keep It Together"), strings ("Long Way Down") and a full drum kit ("Red Oyster Cult").
Rosenworcel admits that while purists weren't immediately receptive to the fleshed-out sound, most fans found the new direction a beneficial part of the band's growth.
"A lot of people were introduced to us through Together," Rosenworcel says. "I feel almost completely liberated now that we've transitioned from our original instrumentation into an anything-goes studio band. I'm pretty happy with that. It's so much more exciting to write without any rules."
The anything-goes concept informed Guster's stage demeanor long before its studio flexibility. Last September, for instance, the band re-created Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood at a Boston concert by wearing blue Keds and cardigan sweaters and renting a big red trolley to make its grand entrance.
"The guys are very real on stage -- a show is their personality coming out," says stage manager and drum technician Sean Lynde. "That's very important. I think people feel that and feel some sense of friendship with this band. With the music they project, their actions on stage, the interaction between crowd and band -- it really starts to feel like a friendship."
Guster.net features a "Fan2Fan" section that contains more than 250 fan profiles, along with pictures and contact info, so that the faithful can arrange get-togethers to coincide with Guster shows. The cyber-camaraderie is reminiscent of the traveling hippie communes that link followers of such acts as Phish or the Grateful Dead.