While Built to Spill leadman Doug Martsch patiently tuned his guitar for the eighth time Saturday night at the Crystal Ballroom, a man stood up in front of the crowd. He was short, with a helmet haircut, glasses and a seemingly self-willed bad sense of humor. "I Xeroxed a mirror today," he said into the microphone, with a breath of tension before the punch line. "Now I've got two photocopiers."
Well-earned groans seeped out of the three-quarters full hall. He continued.
"I faxed a mirror the other day," he said. "I got a thousand faxes back."
The first "you suck" volleyed from the audience after that one. And they followed in tow as the living Dilbert delivered his increasingly painful and ultimately meaningless "jokes." I, myself, opted for the less antagonist call. "Music," I shouted, and the man told one more joke. Then, in the middle of one of his final jokes, everything changed.
A face popped up on the giant onstage screen that had been showing slides of works by Portland artist Mike Scheer while the band played the first half of its ultimately blistering set. It was K Records founder Calvin Johnson. Then Martsch let into a light jam while Johnson stood frozen, but alive, a script of words slightly obscuring his face. What followed was a political screed, spoken by Johnson to the crowd of 1,500, calling on Washington to take the heat off of "eco-terrorists" and focus its energies on more credible threats to our lives and liberties. It was a rousing missive, punctuated with Martsch's lead-heavy riffs that rolled in waves over the heads of the crowd while Johnson stood stoic, almost preening, and most definitely proud to be defiant.
Such a political move by BTS isn't so much shocking as it is just unusual, the Boise group tending towards the implied lefty politics of a college rock band. But such direct challenges to real-life situations just isn't something Martsch usually does. He is not, in the least, a confrontational man, which is, perhaps, why he had Johnson do the talking. Whatever. It was an inspired move. As was the early plead from bassist Brett Nelson.
"Everybody here should support the WOW Hall," said Nelson, whose molasses-jam band painfully opened the BTS show. "It's down in Eugene and it's a great venue, but they're building apartments in the parking lot." The instant reaction here, by jaded renters and hopeful developers, is that the parking lot is history and the club would soon be next. "So, they're trying to raise some money so that they can maybe buy the parking lot."
That's some optimism. As if to illustrate the disconnect between the band's you-can-change-the-world-one-parking-lot-at-a-time attitude and it's slacker reputation, Martsch and crew followed Nelson's call to arms with "Else," a song that includes the following: "Funny thing with blood/ Try to stand but neither leg is awake/ Just this side of love/ Is where you'll find the confidence not to continue."
Of course, that's just a song. And apparently BTS is now much more than a song. It's a lifestyle. MARK BAUMGARTEN.