Thursday, November 05, 2009

Concert Review: Built to Spill

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If there was ever a band whose sound and stage demeanor perfectly fit the now-dead and practically buried Mississippi Nights (there's always talk of the venue reopening again in a new location, but it won't be the same), it's Built to Spill. Like a shitty and humid St. Louis summer followed by an equally shitty but freezing St. Louis winter, a Built to Spill show on the Landing was practically a given. And without exception these concerts were always memorable: a well-worn and smoke-filled venue packed to the point where you just knew fire codes were being violated, a temperature that seemed to hover around 120 degrees, alcohol flowing like water, a disturbing number of bearded Doug Martsch wannabes all intent on headbanging the night away and the band onstage absolutely pulverizing their songs at tinnitus-inducing volumes.

So perhaps it was inevitable that the band's recent performance at the Pageant - one of the most antiseptic and bland concert night clubs any city has to offer - lacked much of the edge and atmosphere that characterized those Mississippi Nights shows. Certainly there were a few remnants of that old Landing vibe: nearly every song was greeted by hollers of approval and a disconcerting number of air guitarists perfecting their technique, the bearded legions of Martsch disciples turned out in force again and many fans in the pit seemed involved in some test of mortality to see who could chain-smoke their lungs tar-black the fastest. Still, the Pageant's stilted and utterly lifeless environs had the predictable effect, as it often felt like the band was being observed as if specimens under glass.

This isn't to say that Built to Spill gave a lackluster or underwhelming effort. The band itself again demonstrated why they are so strong in a live setting, even if Martsch and co. are about as nondescript and unassuming as it gets. The band dipped into its back catalog often throughout the 90-minute set, with songs like "Distopian Dream Girl," "The Plan," "Sidewalk," and "You Were Right" all featuring furious guitar arrangements, a fairly bouncy and twitchy Martsch and drums that somehow cut through this guitar onslaught. Martsch's reedy-thin voice usually takes a backseat to his guitar work, but the singer's expressive vocals carried more restrained tunes like "Reasons" and "Car," both songs reminding the audience that Martsch is a damn good songwriter and not just one of music's finest guitarists. The band did what they could to let the music speak for itself against the Pageant's clinical setup: new track "Hindsight," from new album There Is No Enemy, offered something new for the lifers, there were no ornate backdrops or wild light shows and Martsch didn't patronize the audience with reminders to visit the merch table and didn't even bother to shill for the new album. The band clearly wanted to focus on the music - Martsch said little to the audience aside from a few sincere words of thanks - and it was refreshing to see a band that still puts substance over flash.

Though this wasn't the first time Built to Spill has played the Pageant, it still feels like an awkward fit. The Pageant's spartan aesthetic might suit other bands well, particularly those who clutter the stage with props and other gimmicks. Although no one is likely expecting this mid-size club to have the personality and charm of the city's smaller, more intimate and undeniably more inviting venues, there is very little that gives the Pageant any local flavor at all. To the sound crew's credit, the sound was as good as I've ever heard at the Pageant, with Martsch's vocals clearly audible and the songs' lengthy instrumental flights sounding particularly balanced and precise. Yet a dull setting has a way of sucking the life out of a room, despite an audience's rapt attention and the band bringing some of its best songs to the dance. Perhaps it's at least partly nostalgia for one of St. Louis' most sorely missed venues, but it's likely that more than a few fans left the Pageant wishing Mississippi Nights was still around to give the band its proper due.

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