It’s strange (but not all that strange) to be Built to Spill in 2013. It’s been more than two decades since the Boise outfit’s 1993 debut, four years since the group’s last release (the refreshingly excellent There Is No Enemy), 10 months since the group shook up its rhythm section by replacing longtimers Scott Plouf and Brett Nelson with relative unknowns Steve Gere and Jason Albertini, and — now what? There was to be a new LP, but that seems to have been scrapped. The new material wasn’t bad, “but I had zero eureka moments,” Doug Martsch told Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene last spring. “I was happy to bag that record.”
Fair enough: without a record to promote or a newsy reunion to pitch — like, say, the Dismemberment Plan’s — Built to Spill is touring for the sake of touring and on the strengths of its touring, which anyone who’s heard 2000’s aptly named Live can attest to. So it was a warm surprise to find New York reward the band with a sold-out show and full press list at Irving Plaza last night — for Built to Spill, maybe just being itself is enough. But despite a tweaked lineup, the band’s set hinged on nineties gems at the expense of new material — leaving questions about the band’s future unanswered over the course of a nearly two-hour set.
When I arrived at Irving Plaza, it wasn’t Doug Martsch stalking the stage but his opposite: a chest-baring, poodle-haired vocalist growling odes to his “muse” and chronicling a previous night spent in a sordid town in Rhode Island. This was The Warm Hair, the second opener of the evening, whose meaty, goofily masculine sludge-rock clashed bizarrely with the headlining group’s temperamental earnestness. Audience members seemed equally jarred — a fellow photographer tweeted that the group was “so bad that I’m wondering if it’s an Andy Kaufman-esque joke,” and by the last song, a chant broke out for Built to Spill. It was only a few minutes before a balding, characteristically frumpy Doug Martsch wandered onstage and began setting up.
The band launched with a fiery take on 2006’s “Goin’ Against Your Mind”, You In Reverse‘s most lasting contribution to the BTS canon. Martsch, the guitar hero’s antihero, assumed familiar form: bearded and distant, belting out fuzzy, winding guitar solos into the night as he cocked his head and stared into the space. Seemingly oblivious to his crowd, the frontman performs as if no one’s watching and has a way of bobbing his head side-to-side against the mic; it almost feels intrusive to point a camera at him onstage.
The extended “Goin’ Against Your Mind” served as an unmatchable opener, but it turned out to be somewhat of an outlier — it was one of just three post-2001 cuts on the setlist, alongside Enemy‘s wry, catchy “Planting Seeds” and the newish cut “Living Zoo”. (The latter is the only BTS song that’s been added to sets since I last saw the band in September of 2010.) From there, it was a sharp turn into the early Clinton era: Martsch introduced “In The Morning” as “an old tune,” yowled through the yearning “Reasons”, and even brought out “Get a Life”, from the group’s messy debut.
Two moody classics from masterpiece Perfect From Now On — “I Would Hurt a Fly” and “Velvet Waltz” — drew the biggest reactions (as did “Carry the Zero”, deservedly enough), while the group’s newly installed rhythm section seemed glad enough to lay low and serve as a vehicle from Martsch’s lyrical soloing. And that’s not a point of contention — Martsch’s best tracks are always pathways to wandering, guitar-driven passages, and every second of Perfect From Now On still sounds as revelatory as it did in 1997 (or when the band took it on the road in 2008).
A handful of unlikely covers arrived in the latter third of the set: a rendition of Captain Beefheart’s “Abba Zabba” (fronted by Brett Netson) so on point it nearly sabotaged the mood (but why not?), followed in the encore by straight-faced takes on Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” (Martsch’s admiration for The Smiths has been well documented, though his nasally voice could literally not sound less like Morrissey’s.) The band closed on yet another classic, “Car”, and on came the house lights.
It’s a heartening thing to find Built to Spill living up to its formidable live reputation and still doing Built to Spill better than anyone else can — that is, wry, emotionally-charged indie rock full of swelling guitar heroics and sharp interplay. But what’s next?
Going Against Your Mind
In The Morning
Center of the Universe
Get a Life
I Would Hurt a Fly
Abba Zabba (Captain Beefheart cover)
Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss
Carry the Zero
(Don’t Fear) The Reaper (Blue Oyster Cult cover)
How Soon Is Now? (Smiths cover)