As a music reviewer, when you get the chance to attend a concert for well known rockers at a legendary rock venue, you don’t exactly turn down the opportunity. And I’m so glad I said yes to seeing Built to Spill play Irving Plaza last Thursday. While the band isn’t one that I follow particularly closely, they are one of only a handful of bands I’ve seen live more than once. The first time was as an opener for Kings of Leon (this was pre Caleb Followill meltdown/rehab/wife/baby situation, as in, right before they cancelled their tour in 2010) and I was surprised at how well they played live and the unique tone of vocalist Doug Martsch. Naturally, after that concert, I went home and downloaded a ton of their music, which I listened to for a few weeks and then drifted off to other bands. After receiving the news that I would be seeing them, I dug into my iTunes for those tracks I had saved and rediscovered what had originally caught my attention the first time I saw them play live. Needless to say, I recognized that the show at Irving would be awesome.
Opener Slam Dunk started the night with its cool brand of pop rock. The Canadian natives sounded uniform and their songs were interesting to listen to. They were a great pick to get the crowd amped for the concert to come, and played a lively set. However, they were followed by the less than impressive The Warm Hair, the lead singer for whom appeared to be attempting to hold onto younger days when he tore up the stage, under the influence of unknown substance, the effects of which show clearly on him in the present day. He entered barefoot with his denim shirt unbuttoned, revealing a skinny, bony chest. His long, frizzy hair seemed to be an unspoken mascot for the band name and he often mumbled incoherent ramblings about his muse, for whom he wrote what seemed to be most of the songs. By the end of their performance, several people in the audience were shouting for Built to Spill to hurry up and come out already.
Luckily, Built to Spill did eventually take the stage to save what had become a very awkward performance. As I had previously predicted, it was a great show. Martsch still has the ability to capture the room and the band followed suit, keeping up with the energy. I don’t know many of the songs by heart, but jammed along when they played familiar hits such as “Strange,” “Liar,” “Reasons,” and “Carry the Zero.” My only complaint was that several of the instrumental breaks got a little carried away. However, as that’s worst thing that happened during their performance, it is easily forgivable. As I watched Martsch perform, I remembered his signature performance style. He wags his head side to side while singing and juts his right knee up and down while playing his guitar in swift, unison motions. It looks difficult and tiring to perform this way, but it works for him and feels seamless with who he is. Without this usual feature, the performance would look almost alien.
Built to Spill fans proved themselves fiercely loyal to the band, chanting along with song lyrics and showing wells of enthusiasm for the ’90s rockers. Despite their lack of current work, they have a steady following, and are content to continue performing their favorite songs from both 2009’s There is No Enemy as well as older releases. When they finally walked off after their last song, the audience showed they hadn’t had enough. While most performances end with cries for encores, the sincerity of the crowd’s request for more music was remarkably earnest. The band had already surpassed its allotted time, but no one seemed disappointed with the opportunity to hear more. They ended with my favorite song — and the only one I know all the words to — “Car,” from 1994’s Their’s Nothing Wrong with Love: a great ending to a great show.
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