Last week, 2013 ended with a three-night stand from northwest indie-rock heroes Built To Spill at the Mission Theater. We sent two different writers—Michael Mannheimer and Pete Cottell, both BTS die-hards—to the first two nights, to relive their youth by watching a bunch of old dudes shred into the new year.
Sunday, Dec. 29:
When I was 15 years old, I would have done anything to spend New Year’s Eve (or pre-pre NYE) with Doug Martsch. Like many socially awkward kids that grew up in the Northwest, his band Built to Spill was my gateway drug—the band that led me down the path to becoming a music nerd, college radio DJ, and future music writer. A few years earlier, when I was still in middle school and used to lie to kids when they asked me what I was listening to on the bus, I went through a four month phase where There’s Nothing Wrong With Love was the only thing in my Discman. I was too young to really parse the lyrics, but something about those scrappy arrangements just made sense—I loved Martsch’s high, yelpy voice, the chiming guitars, the goofy hidden track at the end. The first time I saw the band, in 1997, was my first rock show outside of an arena. And though the Crystal Ballroom is by no means a small venue, for a 7th grader who was just getting into indie rock—I think I’d purchased Slanted and Enchanted across the street at Everyday Music about a week earlier—it seemed so intimate, foreign, even extraterrestrial.
So, it was a little weird on Sunday night when I arrived at the Mission Theater and texted Doug Martsch—the Doug Martsch!—to get into the show. He responded quickly, letting me know that my tickets were waiting at will call. I was a little bummed that he didn’t lead me on a quest to find a golden ticket to get in, or at least challenge me to a game of HORSE for the guestlist spot. I guess I’ll have to ask him to shoot hoops the next time he’s in town.
Though Built to Spill hail from Boise, Portland has always been the band’s second home. Back in the late ’90s the group used to play three straight nights at the Crystal, with Sam Coomes always stepping up to add keys to a song or two. Things were surely different in those days, but it was still a little weird for me to see one of my teenage idols at such a small, odd venue.
That’s the thing about Mission Theater: seeing a band play there is kind of like watching a concert in your college rec room. Between the carpeted floor, IPA-drunk crowd, and three incredibly bright lights shining directly on the stage, it felt like I was back throwing concerts at Occidental College’s Tiger Cooler. Matsch took the stage wearing a gray t-shirt emboldened with the Blazers pinwheel logo, which was easy to see because the house lights were so damn bright. But once the retooled band launched into “Carry the Zero” after an opening song from 2006’s You in Reverse, it was easy to forget the awkwardness of the venue and embrace a fun career-spanning set.
Hearing songs from Keep It Like a Secret (“Center of the Universe”) and Perfect From Now On (“Kicked it in the Sun”) was fun, but the highlights were songs I didn’t expect to hear as part of the setlist. BTS brought out Genders lead singer Maggie Morris to sing backup vocals on “The Weather,” and her angelic voice was the perfect compliment to the swirling guitars. And any time you can convincingly cover both “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” and the Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?,” you have to do it, right? Twenty years after it originally formed, Built to Spill has basically become a classic rock band. Fifteen-year-old me might not like that fact, but everybody has to grow up sometime. MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.
Monday, Dec. 30:
Built to Spill endears many fans for many things, but brevity is not among them. This is the band that actually plays “Freebird” when hecklers run out of original ways to troll them from afar, which isn’t hard to begin with. These dudes look like roadies that’ve been on tour for two decades, and goddamn do they love guitar solos. The majority of their aging fanbase fancies themselves to be indie rockers in the ‘90s aesthetical sense, but Doug Martsch and co. have never seemed less than a stone’s throw from the trustafarian jam band circuit. Consider Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like A Secret, their landmark records from the post-grunge era, to be Farmhouse and Billy Breathes for the record store clerk set.
Being a long time fan, the idea of seeing them play three nights in a row at Mission Theater sounded great until I considered the 100 other times I’ve seen them: with the exception of a few sections of their setlist devoted to deep cuts, it’s 65 percent of the same show every time. I love staples like “Stop the Show” and “The Plan” as much as the next guy, but the tension of wondering what lies around the corner of their next five-minute guitar ramble often gets lost in the ether. I decided on the night before New Years Eve and hoped I was in for a unique experience.
The steady motorik beat of “Goin’ Against Your Mind” got the heads of the sold-out crowd bobbing, which is usually the most you’ll get out of a Built to Spill crowd. “In the Morning” and “Stab” followed, but something seemed a little off. Since parting ways with the group’s original rhythm section, Martsch’s on-stage demeanor gives the impression that his noodling is the only glue left to prevent the show from floating off into space. To say the performance was loose would be incorrect: “buggy” was the first thing that came to mind when the tempo shift halfway through “Stop the Show” got off to a wobbly start. After tearing through a few newer tracks, with “Else” sandwiched in between, Martsch brought out “Maggie, from Louisiana,” to sinh backup on “The Weather”. The track seems like a slouch on one of the BTS’s least-liked records, but the tender interplay between Martsch and this unknown stranger made it work. “Velvet Waltz” exploded with drippy, wah-pedal assisted psychedelia, which gave way to “Pat” and standard-issue closer “Carry the Zero.” Another day at the rodeo with guitar heroes that know no other occupation.
The crowd was intimate enough to be void of douchebags screaming for “Freebird,” but I imagine they would’ve been stoked to hear the opening riff to Blue Oyster Cult’s arena-ready classic “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” leap from Martsch’s trusty red Stratocaster. Three-fourths of barnstorming cow-punk opener Slam Dunk came out and camped it up with a cowbell and an instrument case wielded as an impromptu air guitar, and there was much rejoicing. For having such a uniquely focused voice, Martsch could’ve fooled even the most reluctant of BOC fans that may have wandered in on accident. Then again, that’s the glory of Built to Spill: between the tightly-packed guitar wankery and the penchant for goofy covers, their music serves as a safe haven for anyone that loves shredding but is too afraid (or cool) to admit it. Your weird uncle that loves Rush will find a bare minimum of 10 BTS songs that sound great with the t-tops down in his Camaro on a balmy afternoon.
And then, something for the sad bastards: a spot-on rendition of mope-rock anthem “How Soon Is Now?” Guitarist Mike Johnson’s slide work was haunting in its synthesis of what required meticulous studio tinkering to nail down when it first recorded in the ‘80s. In the able hands of Built to Spill, I was awarded a few realizations about one of the Smiths’ most enduring classics: sad bald dudes can shred with a fury unknown to the youngsters, and good lord does that song overshoot the mark by at least two minutes. I was expecting the encore to be bookended with an equally sad number from the ‘90s—perhaps something from Nirvana or Sunny Day Real Estate—but they veered back into familiar territory with the almost-ballad “Car.” Nothing out of the ordinary, and certainly not perfect, but an inspired night of pop-laden guitar heroics nonetheless. PETE COTTELL.