Built to Spill | photo by Jamie Stow for WXPN
Built to Spill delve deep into Keep It Like A Secret at a sold-out Union Transfer
In February of 1999, SPIN magazine’s Eric Weisbard wrote a profile of an Idaho band just coming into their own, a band whose anticipated third record, Keep It Like A Secret, would be released that very month. In it, he describes Built To Spill’s frontman Doug Martsch as almost comically unassuming; the tattered jacket, the scraggly beard, the intense humility, etc. He goes on to recount a story in which the hotel clerk mistook Martsch for a, “panhandling homeless guy.” Over twenty years have passed since that profile, but as the band ambled on-stage for their first of two sold-out shows at Union Transfer this weekend to celebrate Secret‘s anniversary — first to plug in their own equipment, then to start the show proper — it’s clear that little has changed.
The same, though, cannot be said of the audience, a large swath of which were far too young to have caught the band during the album’s original tour. As the swelling crowd herded into the Spring Garden venue, I attempted to take stock. There was, on the one hand, a large contingent of the “originals,” the people who were “there” first, who bought the album twenty years ago, who slid in the CD or popped on the record, who read that same SPIN profile with frothy anticipation and proselytized to anyone who would listen about this great album from a bunch of midwest post-grungers. Then, there was a younger generation. The ones who say, stumbled upon Keep It Like A Secret in a dorm room, between freshman papers, pulling the album from some forgotten blog listing the 100 Greatest Indie-Rock Albums of all time with undue authority, before downloading it from a highly illegal zip file (or maybe that’s too specific). Whatever the breakdown, it took no more than single chord of the classic-rock cosplay favorite “You Were Right” to win the scattered crowd’s full attention.
From there the band swirled through their set, bouncing around Keep It Like A Secret’s incredible collection of indie-pop gems; the playful “Center of the Universe”, the blissed-out “Else”, the indelible “The Plan”. Martsch stood front and center, the reluctant focal point of a sparse stage, free of any kitschy set pieces or ornamentation. This put full attention on the exacting frontman, his guitar, and his varied set of gadgets. Rather than a traditional foot-pedal, Martsch had what looked like a computer board, a place where he could manipulate the ever-changing solos and layer each slithering riff by hand till the wall of sound was more alien than rock band.
To be frank, some of the breakdowns toward the middle of the show started to drag a bit. The term “jam-band” comes with so much baggage, but the stories of the original writing sessions for Keep It Like A Secret consisting of five-hour marathons of foot-pedals and slapdash songwriting were easy to see. Most of the time Martsch looked more like some mad scientist, warping and distorting in his own little world of experimentation, rather than a frontman much interested in audience-engagement. This produced some truly virtuoustic moments, don’t get me wrong, but when the majority of the songs become more breakdown than both chorus and verse combined, it can begin to lose its freshness.
But hey, who am I? These songs are twenty years old and this isn’t some Disney Vault situation. Martsch and company have been playing music from Secret consistently throughout their years of heavy touring. So who can blame them for noodling, for delving deep into “Temporary Blind” to find something fresh, for harking back to those original jam sessions to pull out something new and surprising. If you play every song in the exact same way, not a flair or sparkle in site, you’re a cover band charging thirty dollars a head.
Look no further than “Carry The Zero”, the band’s biggest hit of their career. It is, at its spine, one of the most impressive blends of catchy and experimental in indie rock, a song with one, unrepeated chorus, Martch’s sliding guitar, and one of the most eloquently organized freakouts of all time. It is a perfect song made even better by taking it to its edges in a way only a band having played it a million times could do.
As the lights when up, and the hundreds filed out from every nook of the cavernous Union Transfer, I thought again about the nature of an anniversary shows like this, and the countless others cropping up every day. In a way, these can serve a simmering comeback to all the hand-wringing you see on the internet, or more accurately the small corner of the internet for talking about music, about how the ease of discovery somehow lessens the experience. How can that be, when just that ease of discovery is what leads to hundreds of people, from the college-aged head-bangers to my right, to the swaying grey-beards to my left, all straining to listen to every note spraying from the mind and guitar of a genuine savant. Sure, most of these people didn’t read the SPIN article and weren’t part of the community of indie-rock aficionados who first recognized the album’s brilliance, but who cares? When we can share a genuine moment, when we can enjoy so thoroughly someone bringing their music to life, than the why and how just don’t matter, all that does is being there.
You Were Right
Center of the Universe
When Not Being Stupid Is Not Enough
Waterloo Sunset (The Kinks)
Carry the Zero