Traces – BUILT TO SPILL Live @ City Arts Fest 2011 [review + illustrations]

City Arts Fest 2011
The Moore Theatre
Seattle, Wa

I first heard Built to Spill from across the hall in the dorms.  When I lived in the dorms, I tried to keep myself off the radar.  The natural manner that my floor mates had with group dynamics made it clear that they were the fittest Darwinian specimens and that I was going extinct.  It came to a point where I, more or less, waited until I was confident that the halls were clear, before coming and going (a habit that has, unfortunately, penetrated into apartment life as well).  In the dorms, I became very skilled at dodging social interaction with the  people that I lived around.  However, some things are inescapable: things that become the air you breathe in such close quarters.  You can’t burn enough sage to satisfy the evil spirit that is the pervasive smell of Easy-Mac.  There is nothing that you can do to soften the rumble caused by charging stampedes of post-shower man-boys.  And certainly, you cannot close enough doors to dampen the constant noise of dormish this-and-thats.  Built to Spill was part of the “this and that”.

Up until recently, BTS was a sound I tried to filter out.  The guy across the hall from me—a gold medalist (to my silver) in the Awkward Olympics—had Built to Spill on repeat the entire year.  As their sound waves found their way through the tiny cracks in my particleboard door, Built to Spill became the backdrop of my dorm experience.  All that to say, I was truthfully, very excited to get the chance to see them perform at the Moore Theatre during this year’s City Arts Fest.  “Yeah great!  I’ve always wondered what they would sound like without a concrete wall between them and me.

With my ear to my apartment door, I waited until the last rattlings of passersby had settled and then, made my way to the show.  I arrived at the theater to see five middle-aged guys on stage, all wearing loose fitting t-shirts, and either cargo pants or relaxed jeans.  I could have easily mistaken them for the road crew, if it weren’t for the ecstatic sounds radiating from everywhere in the room except for the stage.  The band enters casually and with a remarkable ease.  Built to Spill brought their living room with them, and now you are standing in it.

Who are you, who come to me to perform in loafers?” I wonder, as they begin their set.  Before this night, I had felt strongly that shows stripped of showmanship had no place in the world.  With the soft-but-fierce competition in media, every band makes arguments and bids for your attention.  Built to Spill offers neither bells nor whistles with their set.  I am a little amazed that they have a following at all—let alone one that easily fills the Moore to capacity.  What Built to Spill gives up with showmanship, they have to make up in musicality and meaning—and that’s what people are here for.  People are clearly not at this show for a spectacle.  There is none to be had.  To quote Keanu Reeves in the blockbuster hit, Speed, “We’re just (2,436) cool dudes, hanging out.”

I begin to re-evaluate my prejudices against showless performances and start focusing on what everyone else in the room cares about: the music.  The sounds are truly elating, as they’re coaxed out of a bramble of pedals, switches and amplifiers.  The ambience of their three-guitar lineup is balanced against the very melodic, occasionally baroque-like movements in their songs—it’s an odd half-breed of shoegaze and jam band.  Even though I have very little interest in either shoegaze or jam band, the way that Built to Spill rides the line is emotive and serene.

I lost myself for a moment in the sad fanfares of Traces.  In case you didn’t know, it’s been proven that infants recognize and respond to music that their mother listened to while pregnant with them.  Subsequently, it’s been hypothesized that preference follows familiarity.  This is all to say, I feel a lot of familiarity with this song; not as if my mom, while pregnant with me, somehow listened to this song 20 years before it was recorded, but like I was indirectly informed of these sounds.  It’s possible that I may have had the seed of Built to Spill planted in my head by the rogue waves that wafted into my dorm room from across the hall.  Even more likely though, in this song, and in Built to Spill’s music in general, I hear so much of what we have come to think of as “the Northwest sound“.

The way in which frontman Doug Martsch bends his strings into a buzz of controlled chaos recalls to my mind the worbly guitars of Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica.  I listened to Modest Mouse long before BTS, but I am beginning to suspect the actual direction of the comparison: Modest Mouse sounds like Built to Spill, not visa versa.  Despite the two-year discrepancy between the formation of Built to Spill and Modest Mouse, the influence that the prior had on the latter is blaringly apparent.  Deathcab for Cutie also got swept up in the same current of contemporaries.  I can hear something like a seminal Deathcab in Built to Spill’s sprawling melodies, and even in Martsch’s voice.  There’s a fake movie I play in my head in which Ben Gibbard puts on a Built to Spill record and spends hours experimenting with just what shape he has to warp his mouth in order to make his vowels sound exactly like those of Doug Martsch.  By way of familiarity, I am becoming more and more aware that the Boise group isn’t something to shut out, as I have in days past.

By the end of the set, though, I feel a little bit like I’m back in the dorms.  Surrounded by a multitude of people who all have an intimate understanding of what’s going on, I feel lost.  Having been formally introduced to the band only recently, I don’t have any personal significance ascribed to these songs.  To these people, each song is a meaningful, personal experience that I haven’t shared.  Every song is like an encore.  Between the finish of one song and the start of the next, I am surrounded by spontaneous uniform chanting from the crowd.  It’s as if there was a program handed out at the door instructing show-goers what to drone in unison and when.  The faces of the front-rowers are elated.  I can see some not-well-concealed guy backstage who is not at all concerned with impressing his girlfriend by showing any level of dignity.  And he’s not the only one, nor is it just guys backstage.  The room is indignant and ecstatic.  The spectacle that Built to Spill isn’t creating on stage is made up for the fervor of the fans.  My appreciation for the band is far too cold and calculated—lacking all the warmth of meaningful experience—to participate.  So, as in the dorms, I’m on the outside looking in.  Bu,t unlike the dorms, it looks great.  And it doesn’t smell like Easy-Mac.

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Ben Rowe

Ben Rowe currently lives in Seattle where he illustrates, writes, and fronts 8-piece band, Friends and Family.

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