Rock ‘n’ roll package tours are usually celebrations of bigness. Even their names ripple like flexed financial muscle: Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E., the Monsters of Rock. The tours are suitable playgrounds for the lumbering dinosaurs that inhabit them. Strictly lowest-common-denominator affairs, they afford over-the-hill and unimaginative rockers a chance to play to much bigger crowds than their stuffed-and-mounted careers would otherwise allow.

But Scat Records, a tiny company in Ohio dedicated to perpetuating song-based, guitar-oriented rock ‘n’ roll, recently organized a package tour that asserted the primacy of musical concerns over commercial ones. The tour’s name, Insects of Rock, articulates its constituent bands’ uneasy relationship to the mainstream by simultaneously mocking and emulating it. The Insect groups are all audibly influenced by famous rockers like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Alice Cooper; they’re devoted to crafting personal communications from familiar rock formulas.

Opening act Franklin Bruno was the evening’s odd man out. He was the only solo performer in a night of rock bands and the only Californian on a bill full of Ohioans, but the real difference lay in what he does with his influences. Bruno plays complicated, multisegmented songs, and his wordplay recalls that of dedicated pop craftsmen like Elvis Costello and the Go-Betweens. The medium suited the messenger; Bruno looks like the community-college instructor he is, and he sang about frustrating relationships with multisyllabic angst. No matter how often he stomped on his distortion pedal, his songs went for the head and not the gut. In other words, they did not rock.

The same could not be said of Cobra Verde. Three-quarters of this band spent most of the 80s playing theatrical 70s rock under the name Death of Samantha. Back then frontman John Petkovic was resplendent in frilly cuffs and perfect hair, and lead guitarist Doug Gillard tottered atop utterly unfashionable platform shoes. As Cobra Verde they dropped the foppery and got down to business. At Lounge Ax the quartet played glam rock minus the glitter, with a visceral assault as mean as a sucker punch. Petkovic’s vocals veered between Bowie-esque affectations and a bellicose gravel-throated snarl, and as he hyperactively stalked the stage he brandished his guitar like a weapon. The band’s throbbing attack matched his rancor, recalling the heavy-yet-tuneful hard rock of vintage Alice Cooper. But Cooper’s transparently show-biz eagerness to shock was strictly kid stuff next to the misanthropy in songs like “Already Dead,” “Cease to Exist,” and “Despair.” Cobra Verde’s album Viva la Muerte gets bogged down in places by a turgid instrumental attack, but onstage Gillard’s fluid leads and phlegmatic demeanor kept the momentum moving forward and provided a necessary foil to Petkovic’s over-the-top stage presence.

Prisonshake, led by guitarist-singer (and Scat owner) Robert Griffin, was the night’s most straightforward and traditional band–essentially an updated archetypal bar band. Griffin and fellow guitarist-singer Doug Enkler cranked out swaggering riffs that could have been lifted from Keith Richards and sang about eternal rock ‘n’ roll pursuits like smoking, drinking, and womanizing. Griffin’s guitar leads acknowledged the current fashion of distortion and feedback, but never at the songs’ expense. What set Prisonshake apart from a thousand forgotten boogie bands were a few punk-derived formal adjustments and the singleness of purpose with which they performed their songs. They played with a missionary zeal, presenting their vision of what constitutes the perfect rock ‘n’ roll song: fast, loud, catchy, and to the point. Their nine-song set went by in about 40 minutes (it would have taken less if Griffin hadn’t broken a guitar string), but felt only half that long.

Guided by Voices’ songs sound oddly familiar on first listening. The band’s name tells why: the voices that guide bandleader Robert Pollard issue from his 6,000-strong record collection, betraying the three decades he’s spent listening to Bailter Space, R.E.M., Cheap Trick, the Godz, early Genesis, the Dictators, Roky Erickson, and especially the Beatles. A friend of mine said GBV’s new album, Bee Thousand, could be the Beatles’ Basement Tapes, referring to the effortless grace and instant familiarity of their melodies.

He was also referring to the record’s murky sound; it seems like it was recorded in a basement on a boom box. Guided by Voices record a lot of their music at home, using the nearest piece of equipment as soon as possible after a song is written. This keeps the performances fresh; it’s also an efficient way to handle the volume of songs Pollard writes. Bee Thousand has 20 songs, and even the group’s singles have six to eight tunes. Obviously GBV’s songs are very short. Perhaps you’ve sat impatiently through a mediocre song, waiting to get to the good part, a perfect chorus or hook. You won’t with Guided by Voices’ songs; they keep only the good part, whether it’s a complete two-minute song or a 30-second fragment.

Onstage Guided by Voices’ low-tech recording ambience was replaced by a full-on roar. Pollard’s stage presence betrays the attention he paid to other great rock frontmen: he’s copped Roger Daltrey’s microphone twirl, Joey Ramone’s curt song introductions, Iggy Pop’s athletic kicks and leaps, and Robin Zander’s giddy enthusiasm. He claims their moves with relish, proving the maxim that great composers don’t borrow, they steal. The band matched his energy. Guitarists Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell surefootedly navigated the songs at ear-splitting volume. Bassist Greg Demos frantically charged back and forth behind Pollard, guitar quit neck first, looking like he wanted to joust with it. Mitchell was even more energetic; when he wasn’t staggering back and forth wrestling with his guitar, he turned in frantic circles like a dog chasing its tail and bopped up and down. On “Gold Star for Robot Boy” he bounced so hard that his cigarette dissolved into a shower of cinders.

Of course all the movement would signify nothing without great songs, and for GBV the song remained king. They played 23 of them in about an hour, each populated by bruising guitars and indelible vocal melodies. Their spontaneity on record was replaced by joyous performance, a vitality that has long eluded their dinosaur forebears. Each of their songs felt like a new and compelling reason to listen to music. It’s been a long time since I could say that about any dinosaur band, but it makes sense. Insects survived whatever it was that killed the dinosaurs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.