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Built to Spill

The Middle East Downstairs, Cambridge, MA

October 11, 2009

Built to Spill, just days after the release of their seventh LP There Is No Enemy, stopped by Cambridge for a three night run at The Middle East Downstairs last weekend. After seventeen years and a handful of different lineups, songwriter Doug Martsch is still at the helm, looking aged but adjusted. The “well-groomed” five-piece took the stage on Sunday, warmed up after two nights in the same venue, opening with a powerful version of “You Were Right,” a tune from 1999’s Keep it Like a Secret. The song pulled the audience back and forth through a dynamic maze, always climaxing with Martsch’s accusation, “you were wrong/when you said/everything’s gonna be alright.” The song benefited from the controlled layering of three guitars. Most notably, guitarist Brett Netson’s overdriven leads cut through the mix at times to reveal a deeper counterpoint against Martsch’s riffing.

Eager to continue playing through new material (though the last night of every three night run is always reserved for “old stuff”), “Hindsight” appeared early in the first set. The contemplative piece shows Martsch in a more reserved but hopeful light. The orchestration is lush and focused on cleaner guitars. In the live setting, washes of sound dominated to further the chord progression. The song is also slower and generated a shoegaze sway that ultimately dissipated as the song diminished to a close.

The rest of the set featured mostly songs from the band’s earlier nineties releases, except for a stunning performance of “Wherever You Go” (a gem from 2006’s You in Reverse). With minimal stage banter, save from Martsch’s shy “thanks” every few songs, Built to Spill took time in between songs to discuss and prepare what to play. With a catalog dating back to 1992, Martsch took the opportunity to explore the full breadth of the band’s repertoire. A devoted fanbase created a calmer, relaxed atmosphere, and the fans allowed the band some downtime to tailor a well-rounded set.

Bassist Brett Nelson (not to be confused with bandmate Brett Netson) mainly hid off to the side, providing a tangible groove for the band. It was clear that Martsch took each song, which are all his compositions, very seriously. He connected with the audience through focusing his attention on the vocal delivery and keeping his eye on his guitar at all times. An array of guitar pedals encircled him, and he carefully switched between sounds at different sections of every song. The band’s stage performance demonstrated their drive to faithfully reconstruct the songs. They successfully executed “Nowhere Nothin’ Fuckup,” a song dating back to 1993. The chorus of “Nowhere” was a blistering attack of dirty guitars, appended with a rhythmic hiccup at the word “fuckup.”

The only other new song appeared in the encore set. While it not as pleasing as some of the other songs throughout the night, Built to Spill closed with an extended version of a recent favorite, “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” which played at full volume and got some members in the front row to dance wildly. The studio version is a decidedly long 8-minute journey, but the free-spirited improvisation in the live setting showed that Martsch and his bandmates were celebrating a great weekend in Cambridge. The song faded out to loud applause, concluding a near 2-hour set. Martsch modestly walked off stage behind his bandmates after a shower of praise from the audience. Built to Spill continues to tour in support of There Is No Enemy, and will play their last gigs in Washington in November.