‘Thanks,’ says Built to Spill

The crowd in Mr. Small’s roared with excitement as Doug Martsch walked on stage — backpack in tow — accompanied by fellow guitarist Jim Roth, bassist Brett Nelson, and drummer Scott Plouf (along with a third, touring guitarist). This night would be the culmination of five months of waiting after Built to Spill postponed its huge American tour last spring, leaving fans with no live experience to accompany the group’s latest album, You In Reverse.

The excitement died down as Martsch spent what seemed like an eternity setting up a DVD projector in order to run an art slideshow during the set. After filling the air with thick anticipation, the band was ready to play. The lights dimmed, the crowd roared, Martsch picked up his guitar, and they were off.

The set began with “Traces” off You in Reverse, sending the audience into a groove. Martsch, never wandering more than a foot or so from his mic stand, stood, eyes closed, transfixed by his own guitar solo as the song escalated towards the final chorus. Once the song ended, the crowd went wild — clapping, cheering, and screaming out requests (commonly “Keep It [Like a Secret]!”). The band answered these exclamations with the glorious opening chord to “The Plan,” launching into the first verse with the audience dancing and singing along. When the song reached the standard ending, the band flowed right into an extended outro jam, perfectly complementing the already amazing song.

Reaching back into their older catalogue, the band continued with “Distopian Dream Girl,” transforming the choppy ditty that appeared on There’s Nothing Wrong With Love into a smooth, loud, rocking anthem. The crowd clapped along with the buildup of “…and let you keep on living,” leading into a soaring guitar solo by Martsch.

After the song ended and Martsch responded to the deafening applause with a simple “thanks” (this would be the extent of the band’s interaction with the crowd, save for Martsch asking the crowd for help finding a slideshow that they had not yet seen), Plouf started up the driving beat of “Goin’ Against Your Mind.” The band jammed through the song flawlessly, inserting familiar guitar solos between Martsch’s powerful vocals. The song cooled down as the third guitarist, on his knees, filled the air with slide guitar swells and Martsch attended to his tabletop oscillator to control beautiful waves of feedback before returning to the mic to lead the song towards a powerful end.
The next few songs, including a Gladiator cover and a new song, were less familiar to most of the crowd, leading audience members to cool down and pay more notice to their newfound hearing loss (after one particular song, everyone standing near the stage left speaker could be seen trying to clear out his or her right ear and sympathizing with fellow temporarily half-deaf fans). Students began to worry about catching the last bus out of Millvale.

The lull was broken by the upbeat “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss,” complete with Martsch and Roth “ooo”ing along with the melody of the guitar solo. Following with another less familiar song, the band lost some of the crowd’s interest, but they more than made up for it with “Conventional Wisdom,” a powerful, fast-paced song off the new album. Next, the band provided the soundtrack to a video monologue comparing America’s violent tactics in the war on terror to the peaceful strategies of eco-terrorists.

After the band’s unexpected but welcome political stance (one audience member responded with a less-than-kind exclamation targeting Rumsfeld), Martsch counted off and began the next song with the telling lyric “Once…” beginning the old favorite “Big Dipper.” The band closed their set with “Carry the Zero,” arguably their most popular song. The thick production of the song on Keep It Like a Secret was perfectly replicated on stage as the guitars meshed seamlessly to create a gorgeous soundscape.

Responding to the crowd’s incessant applause and cheering, the band returned to deliver an epic, 20-minute version of “Broken Chairs” as their encore. Martsch led the band through the lengthy jam with commanding guitar solos and ambient oscillations. By the end of the song, all three guitarists had harnessed their distorted feedback into a massive flame that melted every face in the audience. After five minutes of dying feedback, manipulated by the guitarists as Plouf and Nelson packed up their gear, Martsch called it quits and gave one last “thanks” to the audience.

Despite his calm and cool demeanor, Martsch could not ignore the flailing arms of the front row audience, as he leaned over to shake their hands with a warm smile.