Built to Spill
May 7, 2013
Built to Spill is something of an anomaly. Part grunge, part punk, part indie-rock quirkiness, the band encompasses all these elements without completely embracing any one for too long. That's what made Built to Spill's Crescent Ballroom show so appealing -- this is a musical idiom not found elsewhere on the rock spectrum.
Despite missing two members of the band due to a van breakdown, Built to Spill worked exceptionally well as a power trio. This lineup may also explain why the band kept coming back to 1999's Keep It Like a Secret, recorded when it was still a trio.
Frontman and founder Doug Martsch didn't miss a beat as the lone guitarist, and though he's typically low-key and focused on stage, he might actually have been enjoying the challenge of once again filling out all the guitar parts. Martsch was downright talkative too, acknowledging the audience on numerous occasions.
"Three Years Ago Today" kicked off the sold-out show in rousing fashion, with that welcoming energy carrying over into "In the Morning" and "The Source." "You Were Right" was the first of many Keep It Like a Secret tracks, and the crowd responded warmly. The sound was tight, thick, heavy, and upfront, overpowering the sound system enough that it was hard to make out Martsch's poignant, insightful, unexpected lyrics.
For many, the songs were more about Martsch's distinctive guitar style: forceful but subtle, direct but meandering, and raw but soothing. What was most impressive was how Martsch mixed and matched styles of post-rock, punk, grunge, and modern indie seemingly at will. Known to be something of a perfectionist, his movement on the fretboard was astounding, shifting tempos, rhythms, lead styles and tone with nary a thought and without a misstep. What's more amazing is that someone could imagine these crazy rhythmic movements, full of complex breaks and time signatures, and then bring it all smoothly together with lyrics that touch home.
Visually, Martsch hardly looks the part of a guitar hero, though he is one for many. Balding with graying beard and a slight paunch, his head jerking about as if on a stick and his voice straining at times, Martsch is not one to kowtow to rock 'n' roll conventions. Instead, it's his music that carries more than enough weight.
"You guys are really fuckin' great," Martsch told the crowd, following a heavy, chunky version of "Hindsight." He followed this up with "Else" and an over-the-top "The Plan," reaching deep into the guitar leads for amazing tone and texture, and a driving "Kicked It in the Sun." For this trio of songs, the crowd response reached its peak, cueing off the band's best-known album.
The band mixed in songs from throughout its catalog. "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" cooled things down a little, as did the off-kilter "Hurt a Fly." Martsch, never one to show much emotion on stage, actually shrugged after this one as if to say, "That was okay." The crowd, however, thought much more of the song than that.
"Carry the Zero," with its thick, wah-wah guitar sound and heavy mood swings, closed out the set to enthusiastic applause. The five-song encore opened with "Good 'Ol Boredom," downplaying the need for too many friends. "This is a Bob Dylan song," Martsch suddenly announced next, tackling "Jokerman" with angst and fury, giving the poppy love song a grungy thrashing.
After the all-out punk instrumental jam "Sludge," Martsch settled down for a pair of mid-tempo fan favorites, concluding with "Car" from the band's debut album.
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Though Built to Spill wasn't at full strength, Martsch showed there was plenty of life left in the band, despite that fact there has been no new music for almost four years. At this point, it's on the stage where Martsch feels most comfortable, and those in attendance on this night were most happy for that.
Critic's Notebook: Last Night: Built to Spill, Crescent Ballroom Personal bias: At first, I only listened to the band because I liked the name. Now, I truly appreciate the heavy guitar work and creative prog-like passages. The crowd: Mostly college-aged, but an "older" mix, too. Random notebook dump: Martsch looks like Gimli with that beard, but his axe is a guitar. Overheard: Blonde 1: "How was your date with Mike?" Blonde 2: "He kissed like a virgin." Blonde 3: "How was that?" Blonde 2: "His tongue raced around my mouth like it was the first time." Setlist (as written by Doug Martsch):