- by Andy Brown Rating: Release Date: Label:
Built to Spill are seen by many as a rather important band within the American indie-rock scene of the 1990’s. It would be fair to say that Dough Martsch and Co have been on my ‘must listen to’ pile for far too long. What better way to correct this oversight than to go and see them live as they commemorate the 20th anniversary of their much-loved fourth album, Keep it Like a Secret.
When I arrive at the Brudenell Social Club (surely my official second home by now?), tonight’s first support act are already on stage. Oruã hail from Rio De Janeiro and produce a sound that sits somewhere between frazzled indie and psych-rock. The guitar tone and general lo-fi approach puts me in mind of some of my favourite DIY/indie acts yet the sound itself remains suitably fresh.
The songs have a nice free-flowing, improvisational feel with the guitarist happily noodling away and taking the songs in some pleasingly unexpected directions. The singer explains that he doesn’t speak much English at one point but really this is a case of the music speaking for itself.
The gears shift with the arrival of tonight’s second act, Slam Dunk. Energetic feels like something of an understatement when trying to describe this Vancouver-based four-piece. They’re practically bouncing off the walls from the moment they step on stage, piling into ‘Dying Breed’ so fast that they need to stop and start again.
“Wow! They’re happy” my friend tells me “I wasn’t quite prepared”. She makes a good point. The performance is so overwhelmingly happy at times, I feel like it’s perhaps best appreciated in small, manageable, doses. The band plays fun, ridiculously energetic indie that gallops like a record playing at double the speed.
For me, it’s their calmest song (well, calm by Slam Dunk standards) that provides the most affecting moment in tonight’s set. “Lately” sings vocalist/guitarist Jordon Minkoff on the angsty and ace ‘Bearcub’ “my hearts been aching/ so to stop the pain I cut off both my arms”.
Slam Dunk’s excessively upbeat approach seems to be completely at odds with tonight’s headliners. Martsch barley looks up from his guitar as he calmly leads the current Built to Spill line-up through Keep it Like a Secret. The album lovingly reproduced in its entirety but re-ordered to keep those long-term fans on their toes.
While some anniversary shows feel like an out-and-out celebration, tonight’s performance feels much more low-key. Each song is given the care and reverence it deserves yet the band remain quiet and noticeably reserved throughout.
Barely a glance passes between the men on stage, barely a smile. Stock still as they deliver each song. I feel awkward even mentioning it (I’m not one of those awful people that go around telling strangers to “just smile”) but it’s hard not to notice. If you came for the between song banter, you’ll be disappointed. The songs, however, are hard to deny.
“You were wrong” begins Martsch as the band kicks off with ‘You Were Right’ “when you said everything’s gonna be alright”. Anthemic, noisy and triumphant in a wonderfully gloomy way. ‘Temporarily Blind’ comes next with some gorgeous slide guitar and some more collective melancholia.
You can tell just how much this album and performance means to so many in the crowd* but it takes me a little longer to really get into tonight’s show. This is an album many will have absorbed over hours of repeat spins in their bedrooms but I’m still firmly in first date territory.
It’s around the time they play the brilliant ‘Centre of the Universe’ that I feel myself being pulled into the band's orbit. Man, it’s good; classic 90’s alt-rock at its finest. Why don’t I know this song better? They follow this with a glorious, blistering rendition of ‘Broken Chairs’. The guitars wail like Rust Never Sleeps-era Neil Young as Martsch unfurls some wild, spine-tingling solos over the songs near 10-minute duration. An epic and devastating highlight.
The encore includes a rather fun cover R.E.M. classic ‘Harborcoat’. There are certainly some comparisons to be drawn between Stipes early heartfelt yet shy demeanour and tonight’s performance. The quiet vocals, whispering secrets, and confessions in our ears.
At times you wonder if they’re enjoying the show but look a little closer and you can tell just how immersed Martsch is in every song. Closing his eyes as he plays; passion and pain bubbling under every chord. Feeling every note and hoping you do too. They close the main set with the album's opening track, ‘The Plan’. If the plan was to make me want to go and listen to more Built to Spill then it worked a treat.
* One man shouting at Martsch as he points at his friend, "he named his son after you". Now that's devotion.