Built to Spill
Feb. 23, 2012
Better than: Headbanging and singing along with the guitar solos on Perfect From Now On by yourself in a car with shitty speakers.
At the intersection of "excruciatingly shy" and "legitimate guitar god" on a Venn diagram, there's some fine company to be had: Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, one might say. But for those of us raised on melancholy mid-'90s indie rock with lyrics about dreams and social anxiety and how big you thought dinosaurs were when you were a little kid, Built to Spill's Doug Martsch -- with his unique ability to look embarrassed for accidentally almost smiling while playing a ridiculously intricate solo -- reigns supreme.
"Thanks very much, that was really fun to play for you guys," Martsch said quickly, in one of his most verbose moments of last night. The "that" in question was a 10-minute, jammed-out version of "Stab," off There's Nothing Wrong With Love, in which he and guitarists Jim Roth and Brett Netson took turns pushing the song to its sonic limit against a crashing wave of reverb before veering neatly back toward its original, danceable riff as an ending. Another center spot on a Venn diagram, if you will: Built to Spill is a gorgeous jam band for people who don't generally like jam bands (ahem).
For almost two hours straight at the Fillmore last night (minus the time it takes to say "Hey, thanks a lot" in between songs), Martsch -- looking for all intents and purposes like someone's sorta-cool dad, in jeans and a T-shirt with a picture of a cat on it (?) -- guided the five-piece band from Boise through a set that zig-zagged across two decades and seven albums.
It was as tight as it was ambitious. Most of all, it was gorgeously guitar-driven, from the lilting "Three Years Ago Today" off 1993's Ultimate Alternative Wavers and the poppy, punk-infused "Joyride" (cue overjoyed pogoing from maybe 30 percent of the crowd) to a heartfelt, singalong rendition of "You Were Right," one of the prettiest odes/pleas ever penned to one's songwriter-forefathers, off 1999's Keep It Like A Secret, to a dreamy version of "Hindsight," the single off 2009's There is No Enemy.
"Is that grass just greener 'cause it's fake?" the sold-out crowd yelled cheerfully along with Martsch's high, sweet voice on that last one, his bald head glinting in the stage lights as he fiddled with some pedals and struggled to suppress maybe his fourth smile of the night. The ability to make deeply depressing sentiments and expressions of doubt and insecurity sound like waltzes and lullabies is part of what makes Built to Spill such a personal band for so many people: these are songs listened to stoned in the dark in high school bedrooms, or blasted on repeat during long drives with something big to think about.
"My one wish is that they'll do 'Twin Falls' and then 'Some,'" said a guy standing near me, desperation in his voice. "I'd be happy with just 'Twin Falls,' I guess, but that's kind of like foreplay with nothing afterward."
Fair enough. The best Built to Spill songs are all about the build-up/payoff -- the quiet, quiet, LOUD, quiet -- and the most dedicated of Built to Spill fans know to expect that, times 50, when seeing the band live.
Of course, if there are any casual, yeah-I-kinda-like-that-one-song Built to Spill fans in San Francisco, they stayed home last night. Either that, or they were too intimidated by the eyes-closed, fists-in-the-air majority at the Fillmore not to follow suit. This crowd knew what they wanted to hear (and wanted to yell about it, at every given opportunity) and also delighted in hearing absolutely anything they could get.
A painfully short encore ("Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" and "Goin' Against Your Mind") was punctuated by Martsch flubbing a line on the latter and laughing semi-un-self-consciously before finding his place again -- and the crowd going nuts about it. The show ended with him grabbing his beat-up backpack and hoodie and waving sheepishly before exiting stage left.
"He has no reason to be so shy, he's amaaaazing!" said one girl as everyone pushed toward the exits for their free poster. At one point tonight, she reported, she had pushed her way up to the front and yelled "I can see you smiling!" when that quarter-smirk had begun to appear the corner of the singer's face.
"I'm sure it embarrassed the hell out of him, but when I turned around there were like 50 people grinning and giving him big thumbs up," she said with a shrug.
Which is, one can imagine, a dynamic that Doug Martsch has gotten used to.
By the way: Disappointments of the evening include that they did not, in fact, do "Twin Falls" nor "Some," nor "Car," which is often a go-to encore that makes everyone yell in delight and then promptly makes half the crowd weep.
Quote of the night:
Doug Martsch: "How is everyone's February going?"
Doug Marstch: "That's good to hear."
Personal bias: Yes.