Sorry, first let me back up and provide some context. I spent nearly six hours in a car this weekend, where I listened entirely to Built to Spill‘s catalog on shuffle. Even when I wasn’t in transit, I had each of their albums on heavy rotation — all eight studio records, as well as their numerous EPs, compilations, and a live album.
I love this band, and I’ve hit similar marathon runs in the past on an almost bi-monthly basis. This binge-listening session, however, had a purpose: In a few days I would be seeing my first Built to Spill headlining show, and I wanted to once more absorb their catalog inside and out in preparation. No matter what they chose to play from their vast discography, I wanted to be able to match Martsch on air guitar note-for-note throughout the evening.
My only other experience seeing Built to Spill was during an opening stint for Death Cab for Cutie at Berkeley’s Greek Theater. The band’s 45-minute set was awe-inspiring, featuring a five-piece band — meaning three guitarists(!) — performing the greatest songs of the ’90s, as well as some great ones from the past decade. Their sound was lush, with long stretches of bombastic jams that proved both melodic and biting. Lead singer and bandleader Doug Martsch doesn’t look all that impressive in person, but he was absolutely captivating on stage as he convulsed his body wildly to the rhythm of every song. The moment the band left the stage, I immediately started to dream about the next time I could catch their live show.
Which brings me to last night, where only six months later I found myself fortunate enough to catch the band during the first of two nights at San Francisco’s Slim’s. Now far better versed in all things Built to Spill, I was ready for whatever Martsch could throw my way. I fixated on the exciting unknowns: What would their setlist look like? What songs would evolve into extended jams? Would they bust out their explosive rendition of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer”? Or instead opt for one of their handful of David Bowie covers? What kind of mind-bending sounds would Doug squeeze out of his pedalboard? So many questions, but I was stoked to see them all answered. So how did I walk away from what I saw?
Well, apologetically underwhelmed.
For one, I was surprised to see the band scaled down to a three-piece. The slimmer trio gave the performance more of a punk-rock feel for some songs, but for the most part didn’t prove too noticeable. The music felt slightly less expansive, but Martsch is such a skilled guitarist that he almost completely made up for any sonic limitations the reduced lineup posed. Nonetheless, technical proficiency couldn’t distract from the general lack of enthusiasm emitting from the band. The proceedings felt mechanical, as if the band was simply moving through the motions. I can’t imagine this West Coast tour was erected from financial necessity, so it’s sad to see Built to Spill so disengaged at the outset of such a short run of dates.
You could maybe chalk up their attitude to having to play the same old songs for nostalgia-seeking fans, a relationship manifested through the constant and consistently awful requests from the crowd (basically every song the band ever recorded in the ’90s was shouted at Martsch and co. during the first half of the set). But what began as unjustifiably annoying soon enough became idealistically pleading — as the audience begged in silence for the band to play anything but another song from last year’s Untethered Moon.
Now this is not to say that album is anything less than awesome: It’s heavy, but hearteningly so, and doesn’t take itself too seriously while never selling itself short. For a band that’s already become part of the alternative rock canon, it’s great to see them embrace their new work so deeply and for fans to embrace it in return. That said, it’s almost dumbfounding that they chose to play 70% of their new album, from a set that was more than 40% songs from said album. They front-loaded their set with so many Untethered Moon songs that fans began to wonder if the new album was to be played in its entirety. If the band is indeed bored with performing older material, they gave themselves many opportunities to have fun with the new stuff — but for most of the set, regardless of the song the trio chose to perform, they kept along with the same perfunctory posturing.
The setlist likely wasn’t an issue for anyone who discovered the band on this most recent album cycle, but for all other fans (read: most) it proved slighting. Built to Spill don’t have a bad album to their name, but they do have three legendary ones…yet they played a grand total of two songs from their greatly celebrated run from 1994 to 1999. The show made me long for when I saw them perform classics such as “Carry the Zero” and “Kicked it in the Sun” back in Berkeley. It was nothing short of disheartening how it seemed the band were much more excited to play old material at a show for Death Can for Cutie fans than for an intimate room of their own. Built to Spill set lists in recent years have been well-constructed representations of their whole history, leaning heavily on fan favorites. But the set they crafted for last night felt off-putting, like a deliberate subversion of earned goodwill.
Still, this is Built to Spill — absolute gods of guitar-rock. That genre may sound like an oxymoron, but the band does things with guitars that no other rock band can come even remotely close to pulling off. Martsch launched into solo after solo of novel acrobatics throughout the night, and got so many sounds simultaneously out of his instrument that with one guitar he could convey what required three on record. And those Untethered Moon songs are killer on record, but exist as whole other entities live. “So” officially ranks among the band’s greatest live staples, and last night’s rendition of “Horizon to Cliff” turned an otherwise middle-of-the-road Built to Spill song into one of the most memorable moments of the whole show.
Better yet was when the band broke from Untethered Moon, and that’s when things generally took a turn for the incredible. “Things Fall Apart” and “Pat,” both from 2009’s There is No Enemy were set highlights from opposite ends of the spectrum, the former leisurely haunting and the latter aggressively exhilarating (although was the most unnecessary choice to feature the sole second guitar of the night). The encore was a real doozy of a double-hitter, with back-to-back performances of “Virginia Reel Around the Fountain” and “Untrustable / Part 2 (About Someone Else)” delivered with a renewed vigor that brought me to those Greek Theater highs.
Which means that the finale brought the band to finally meeting my expectations. This extremely high bar I set perhaps puts me at fault for being underwhelmed. Even when it feels like they are coasting, Built to Spill is one of the most formidable live spectacles — and last night was one of awesome rock music regardless of how they chose to communicate it. But still, I like to think Built to Spill isn’t a band I would need to settle for. I’m still holding out to see them once more deliver another breathtaking performance, and I’ll never let that hope falter — because Built to Spill is a band that deserves my highest expectations.