Near the end of last year, Built To Spill frontman Doug Martsch announced that he had begun work on the next BtS album, and that the band would be doing a bit of touring in 2012. And while we can’t verify the first part of this, live dates for 2012 indeed began last night in Pomona on what would be a brief swing through California, and the band has appearances at South By Southwest and Sasquatch already lined up. What does another year of Built To Spill mean? If Wednesday night is any indication, the band is as vital as ever, appearing workman-like and comfortable on stage but reaching sonic heights that explain the band’s endurance in the indie scene for the past 20 years.
When I say vital or speak of the band’s endurance, I speak less from an influence standpoint, because though the band is clearly influential on a contingent of guitar-based indie, the Built To Spill guitar-rock style is hardly in vogue. No, I speak more from my basic observations at the Built To Spill show. For one, the Glass House, which resides near the edge of Los Angeles County, was nearly at capacity on a Wednesday night for a band that tours pretty regularly and doesn’t have an album to support. Secondly, the audience wasn’t the thirty-something nostalgia trippers you might expect: they were mostly young. Hell, even the sex demographics were surprisingly even, with ladies seen dancing to Built To Spill deep cuts while mouthing the lyrics. Despite the fact that the band on stage had more hair on their faces then on their heads, Built To Spill manages to remain relevant in a time when their strongest material has more 10 years of dust on it. Yes, Built To Spill are clear beneficiaries of the boom of indie rock in the past five years, despite the fact that they have comfortably resided on Warner Bros. Records since the mid-90’s.
After an opening set from Sister Crayon that proved to be confident and competent (though the group’s electronic leanings didn’t provide a compliment to the headliners), Built To Spill began their set as they always do: by setting up their own equipment. For small club shows, this isn’t a big deal, but even as Built To Spill has played bigger theaters and venues, the band still retains a lot of their DIY philosophy and should be a model for young bands for how to make it in this industry over the long term.
Younger bands could also take note at how Built To Spill made their setlist, satisfying all level of fan with newer tunes, deep cuts, and a few that most people would know. Of course, it would have been nice to hear some of that new material that they are supposedly working on, but it probably is not ready for the general public as of yet. Still, the band capably mixed songs like “Hindsight” from their 2009 effort There Is No Enemy with tunes like “Nowhere Nothin’ Fuckup” and “Get A Life” from 1993’s Ultimate Alternative Waver. But, fans reacted strongest to the tracks that fell somewhere in the middle, whether it be “Stab” or “Big Dipper” from There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, or the closest thing to a ballad that they would play all night, “Else” from Keep It Like A Secret.
Martsch sincerely thanked the crowd after each song and even though most tunes featured a jammy moment at some point, Built To Spill never left their comfort zone or played with immediacy until the set’s eventual climax (though, I must note that “Stab” was particularly sublime, with Martsch, Brett Nelson, and Jim Ross taking their guitar work to symphonic levels). The closing two tunes of the main set, “Randy Described Eternity” and “Carry The Zero,” were clear fan favorites, with the latter getting an eruption from the crowd when the opening chord was strummed. But, as “Carry The Zero” features some signature guitar parts, the band chose to jam out after the very first verse rather than the end, supplying one of the longest guitar solos I have ever heard to take place that early into a tune. Likewise, single song encore “Goin’ Against Your Mind” also stayed with the script, which was perfect because there is hardly an unneeded note on the recorded version. Yes, maybe the ultimate sign of maturity and professionalism is that Built To Spill can dial down their love of improvised musical moments when the song demands it. And it’s nice to see them teaching yet another generation of music fan just what pros they are.