Built to Spill – The Bowery Ballroom – September 23, 2015
To say Built to Spill, ensconced in their third decade, arrived at the stage of The Bowery Ballroom with nothing to prove would be stating it far too simply. Doug Martsch, the band’s creative life force, sporting his trademark aesthetic dilapidation, opened the first of three Bowery Ballroom shows with understatement that belied the tension in being both a musician touring behind his most recent LP—the band’s eighth studio album, Untethered Moon—and his position as something of a living rock icon. But Martsch is no relic or golden calf, enjoying neither the iconoclasm nor the media coverage granted to other titans of early ’90s independent rock, like Malkmus and Brock. Instead, Martsch’s enduring image is the one he brought to the stage last night: Eschewing the spotlight, workmanlike in his approach, still as committed to his craft as one of the great guitar players in rock, remarkably uninterested in whatever else comes with a career of his size and scope.
Appropriately, Martsch sported a black T-shirt and jeans, said little besides a mumbled “thanks” between songs and spent much of the evening with his eyes closed. Even as fans punctuated the moments between songs with shouts of “I love you, Dougie!” and “Play whatever you want,” Martsch appeared unfazed. He and the band, a new lineup for Built to Spill, played songs from across their catalog, opening with “The Plan,” “Living Zoo” and “The Wait.” The inimitable frontman remained largely impassive, demure even, as he thrashed through spot-on guitar solos. Like the line in his beard where the gray descending from his temples meets the brown hair of his jowl, resembling an inverted Black and Tan, Doug Martsch is these two things at once: young and old, roaring and contemplative.
The band then played “Three Years Ago Today,” “I Would Hurt a Fly” and “Sidewalk,” songs from 1993, 1997 and 1999, respectively. As Martsch moved into more recent material, “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” a lyric from “The Plan” emerged as prescient. Martsch had begun the evening singing, “This history lesson doesn’t make any sense/ In any less than 10,000 year increments.” A longer view of history was exactly the remedy for a set that whipped through the past, only sometimes chronologically. While Martsch appeared to care little for posterity or celebrity at The Bowery Ballroom, he held an intimate and hard-won sense of time—its pliability and its indifference.
—Geoff Nelson | @32feet