There’s a significant reason Built To Spill has stuck with me since my first listen. It’s the same reason why I can never just have the group on as background music, rather than the center of my attention. That reason is because of the dominating, decimating, day-disrupting decibel-augmenting Wall of Sound that the Boise-bred project has constantly implemented into their style since the early 90s upon their inception.
Built To Spill has a tendency to fill every pocket of sound-space available with the most freely flowing guitar melodies/chords, bass runs, and drum grooves. While mysteriously not very well known, they are hugely responsible for the way indie rock turned out, heavily influencing countless prominent acts from Alex G to Death Cab to Elliott Smith to Modest Mouse. I got to see their performance at the Showbox on Friday, February 5th, the first of their 2-night stand in Seattle.
There were a few factors that influenced my mood at the beginning of Built To Spill’s set. The first was the gentleman in front of me, who thought that “cowboy” was an appropriate style of hat to wear at a concert/event where people like to see. The second was the opening act, The Hand. Now, I’m sure The Hand was killer back in the 90s, when the Clinton Family’s biggest problem was Mon Lewinski, but in 2016, they’re pretty old and unable to relate to a crowd. Every song they played, and I’m not exaggerating, had an extended guitar solo with ample wah-wah pedal. The singer sounded kind of like Nicklelback’s Chad Kroeger but with more cigarettes and a lot less confidence. Anyway, it wasn’t terrible; it just wasn’t what I was expecting to open for the mighty Built To Spill. Soon enough, their set ended, my buddy and I propelled our way past the cowboy in front of us, and we were ready to Spill.
The lights were still up, and we kept waiting for the band to make their grandioso ascension onto the stage. With the house still brightly lit, and the meanwhile-music still clear, Built To Spill’s mastermind, Doug Martsch arose, and began to tech his own equipment. This was almost surreal, as no one really does this past a certain level of fame. The audience gave him a whirling round of applause; he presented a humble smile and wave, and went back to his work. This, of anything, is the best indication of the man’s humility, which undoubtedly influenced his music to become the sans-ego, sans-RockNRoll Cliché that in turn aided in the alternative revolution of modern music.
When the group was finished setting up their own equipment, Mr. Martsch asked the house manager permission to start playing, and sure enough the lights finally faded. What initially took me by surprise was that the band was only a trio, when they traditionally tour as a five-piece. I wondered if this would be a game changer. Built To Spill launched into “All Our Songs”: the driving 6-minute opener of their latest and eighth album, Untethered Moon. When Doug Martsch sings into the microphone his head is turned upward, his eyes are shut tight, and everything from his torso up shakes uncontrollably. I’d like to think that the vocals he produces are so intense that the process distorts his entire body upon the emergence of sound.
With eight albums under their belt, the group had a lot of material to select from. However, they managed to provide an eclectic arrangement. Most of the tunes came off of Untethered Moon, and many more off of their gargantuan release from ’99, Keep It Like A Secret, which I hold on my top-ten list of all time favorite albums.
Despite the incredible sensation of witnessing such an anticipated and legendary group, there was something that bugged me. I detest the fact that it wasn’t perfect because I genuinely wanted it to be, however the absence of the other two Built To Spill members was a substantial loss of that fundamental Wall of Sound I’ve come to associate them with. The group’s dynamic just was not the same as it felt on the records because of the lacking of musicians. On stage, the line-up consisted of a drummer, a bassist, and guitarist/vocalist Martsch, who also utilized his NASA-resembling hand-board of guitar effects. But all the effects in the world can’t make up for another guitarist. That’s proof that humans will win the inevitable apocalyptic war against the machines, but that is neither here nor there.
Toward the end of their set was “Carry The Zero.” This song is a coming of age tale in itself, with enough power to make me lose all sense of time and space. On the recorded version, each passing minute of the track builds and builds to the point of personal epiphany and solace within the pulsating music. This sensation is brought on primarily because of the overlapping guitar lines. Needless to say, Doug Martsch’s power with a guitar is incomparable. However, he’s only one person. He needs at least one other guitarist pounding out the song’s chord progression for him to take lead melody over in order to maximize the power generated.
With all of this holding true, I would indeed be a liar though, if I said I didn’t get chills when Martsch belted out the vitally heartbreaking lines, “I was trying to help, but I guess I pushed too hard/Now we can’t even touch it, afraid it will fall apart.” That kicked me right in the Feelz-Bone.
Built To Spill delivered an incredibly tight show, which satisfied my ever-growing desire to experience the band up close and personal. They’ve been on my bucket list of bands to see for too long, and now I can happily cross them off. Next time they come around, I will have to do my research. If they’re travelling as a five-piece again, I will be there without any hesitation.
JASON McCUE | Quilt to Chill | KXSU Reporter