Built to Spill’s recent appearance at New York City’s Webster Hall, the first of four consecutive nights across two boroughs, could hardly be called a promotional appearance for their new album. The band only played a few songs off There is No Enemy, instead dipping deep into their catalogue (with the exception of Perfect From Now On) to unearth some classic indie rock gems.
Doug Martsch and company look more like a bunch of dads playing rock and roll now than ever before, but the effect is comforting, not disconcerting. Martsch tends to jerk with a Joe Cocker palsy when he’s belting out a tune, but his movements do nothing to upset his gentle, high-pitched singing voice. The band was tight, all three guitars negotiating their way through a mess of effects pedals, as they turned simple songs into extended jams.
Beginning with “In Your Mind,” a spare, pounding tune with subdued six-string theatrics, the band reinvigorated a bunch of older songs. “When Not Being Stupid is Not Enough,” “Car,” “In The Morning,” even “Joy Ride” were energetic crowd-pleasers of the night, undoubtedly reminding many in the audience of their high school and college years. And for Martsch, nostalgia seemed to be refreshing rather than tedious, as he truly appeared to be having fun dusting off these aged songs. There were moments when the band seemed to be reaching a breaking point, ripping out simultaneous guitar solos for several minutes at a time, but Martsch always reined it in before it became musical masturbation.
The band ended its set with “Carry the Zero,” one of Martsch’s best songs of this decade, before coming back for a three-song encore. It’s kind of amazing to think that Built to Spill remains comfortably on a major label, given the band’s reliance on more traditional, gimmick-free indie rock, and its inability to obtain a Modest Mouse-sized audience. Who knows, maybe it’s not as comfortable as it seems. Maybe Martsch is destined to pull a Sonic Youth and jump ship (or be forced over) to a larger indie imprint. Ultimately, all that matters is that Built to Spill keeps creating the no-frills but still exciting rock and roll that they have thus far, and that they continue to deliver stellar performances like this one.