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Concert Review: Built to Spill at Avalon

Indie Rock Grows Up, but the Sound Stays Predictable

By Sarah Dupuis

Built to Spill


Monday, Oct. 2, 2006

Listening to a Built to Spill album is like tasting a culinary masterpiece. A basic texture sustains the entire dish, while subtle undertones of spices and seasonings pepper and flesh out its flavor. The tongue is not always capable of picking out these seasonings. Likewise, a Built to Spill album is woven with lackadaisical guitar echoes, and although they sound exciting, it’s difficult if not impossible to tell where they’re produced from. The remedy? For the former, one could watch a master chef in the kitchen. For the latter, one need only catch Built to Spill on their latest tour.

Veterans of the guitar-driven indie rock genre, Built to Spill (headed by distinctive Idahoan Doug Martsch) have been playing their tunes for a long time — almost fourteen years — and their live shows reflect it. In concert, Martsch and bandmates appeared stage-weary; more than a few bald heads graced the Avalon stage, in contrast to the crowd, which had a median age of about twenty. Built to Spill have always been indie kid favorites, and the audience energy was high, but the band just didn’t look as into the music as one might expect from what the tremendous sounds suggested.

After setting up the stage, the band nonchalantly dove into “Going Against Your Mind,” the nine-minute single off their sixth and latest studio release, “You in Reverse” (2006). This latest album, although more adventurous and jam-based than past releases, has been met with mixed reviews. While newer songs demonstrate that the band is artistically maturing, “You in Reverse” lacks those catchy guitar riffs that defined Built to Spill’s old and beloved sound. This is not to say that “You in Reverse” is a bad album; it’s interesting, but certainly not memorable, which could explain why Built to Spill has been ducking in and out of the studio on dates off from the tour.

Although this tour is intended to promote the new album, the band’s set included crowd-pleasing old singles off past records: “There’s Nothing Wrong with Love” (1994), “Perfect from Now On” (1997), and “Keep It Like a Secret” (1999). Set highlights included “Big Dipper,” which elicited delight from the crowd — Martsch even cracked a smile. A down-tempo cover of an old reggae protest song by The Gladiators graced the set halfway through the concert. The debut of a new song, a ballad-like pop tune, revealed a more decorative guitar style atypical of Built to Spill. The band members finally seemed to enjoy themselves by the encore, a twenty-minute rendition of “Randy Describes Eternity” off of “Perfect From Now On,” in which they allowed themselves to experiment with feedback and strange noises and all of the wonderful things they should have used throughout the set.

Martsch, now fully bearded, played most of the show with eyes closed, and seemed more like a tree than a singer until the cave of his mouth appeared when he sang. The guitarists played off each other as energetically as on studio recordings, but the high-intensity motion one might expect for such great guitar riffs simply did not happen, and the band remained motionless for most of the show. What’s more, the old guitar solos strayed only rarely from the recordings. Perhaps the band was playing to familiarity; the audience sang along to most songs, and many even mimicked the guitar solos. Regardless of the band’s intent, there was a lack of energy through most of the performance.

While inertia kept the band still, a small projector hooked up to a mini-laptop kept the show visually stimulating. The visual show displayed the work of Mike Scheer, Built to Spill’s album artist, including an eerily restored Lassie picture book. The band also played video footage defending ecological activism and, shortly thereafter, a video of a cat pulling itself all around a rug by way of a circle of chairs. The fans were entranced, and the band seemed to get a kick out of the audience’s reaction. Perhaps Built to Spill will be able to tap into that momentary excitement as they continue their tour through November.