The Bluebird is exactly the kind of cozy, intimate venue I'd always dreamed of seeing Built to Spill in. At Monday night's show (9/28) it was hard not to be close to the stage, with the massive speakers blasting the renowned indie rock band's enormous three-guitar sound directly into my brain--quite a contrast to the last time I saw them at Pitchfork Music Festival.
Opening up were tourmates Disco Doom, a relatively unknown Swiss band that made a hell of an impression. Their sound was very 90's-inspired, taking more than a few pages from the grunge & post-grunge songbooks of weathered veterans like Dinosaur Jr. and the band they were opening for. In fact, Built to Spill may have been the foursome's most easily-recognizable influence. Considering the band's mixture of heavy, distorted riffing and wailing with huge, atmospheric melodies on guitar with catchy vocal lines, it's small wonder that BtS chose these like-minded Europeans to share their current US jaunt.
Their singer/guitarist (nameless here because of a cryptically uninformative Myspace and German-language webpage) came off as sort of a mix between J. Mascis and Kevin Drew; sometimes gritty, sometimes soft, but usually somewhere in between, his voice was often all that rose above the band's swirling, slow-building wall of sound. "The Magic Arc Song," Disco Doom's last of the night, was a definite highlight, showing how unique the group's style and delivery truly are in spite of all they owe to the last two decades of American indie rock. After a passionate verse, the song broke down into a ¾ rhythm and repetitive 3-note guitar line that threatened to become monotonous, but was brought to a climax just in time by the singer's rising, thunderous, echoing guitar melodies. It ended in him thrashing at his strings relentlessly, the whole thing sounding like an explosion in slow motion, his head and body tilting back slowly as everything grew and grew, mouth open and eyes closed like the sound was a multifaceted, primal roar. Awesome.
Built to Spill opened up their set with a song I hadn't heard in years and never expected to see live: "When Not Being Stupid Is Not Enough," from their 1996 collaborative EP with fellow Idahoans Caustic Resin (BtS guitarist Brett Netson's former band). The song's slow, instrumental intro hinted at the deft guitar playing to come, wandering into the lengthy opus's solemn and minimal groove, which set the tone for the beginning of the band's set. "Traces" followed, a dark, dreamlike track from 2006's You In Reverse that made for an excellent live rendition and gave the ever-amazing Doug Martsch his first chance at a truly jaw-dropping guitar solo.
"Center of the Universe" brightened things up a bit after "Untrustable/Part 2 (About Someone Else)", but the whole band was quiet and somber for the majority of the show, with little to say to the audience but Martsch's curt, high-pitched "thanks" after each song. "Hindsight" gave us a first glimpse at some of the band's new material, a hazy and relaxed pop song with an already-recognizable Martsch vocal line.
Despite their serious attitudes, the whole band played with the same kind of vigor and live chops they've been known for since the early 90's. A heavy, churning rendition of "Stop the Show" extended the song into more Eastern-tinged territory, following an extra-energetic "Sidewalk" and a song with a Crazy Horse-ish chord progression that I didn't recognize (possibly new?).
Their final song before leaving the stage was the fastest, rawest of the night, kicking straight into a hard riff and driving drumbeat with Martsch practically yelling to be heard over it. A "one more song" chant brought the band back on in no time, starting off their tremendous, four-song-deep encore with "Car." Next, "Big Dipper" and "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" had the whole bar singing along, and rounding out the crowd-pleasing coda was "Carry the Zero," one of my personal favorites.
The set was a good balance of old and new material, throwing together tons of different tracks from the band's seven album catalog. Built to Spill is a band with really nothing left to prove to the musical world, but they certainly proved to me that they're going to continue kicking ass well into the 21st century. The drunk guy next to me at the front put it well, telling me that out of the three indie rock shows he'd seen in his life (Modest Mouse and Man Man being the other two), this one was by far the best, and that nobody was as "fucking amazing" as Built to Spill.