Built To Spill // Review & Photoset

Photos: Duncan Cruickshank

Built to Spill are indie-rock royalty; since 1992, they’ve been a part of the canon of indie acts. Their fourth album, Keep It Like A Secretis their most acclaimed and it’s truly a stellar record. However, despite an impressive reproduction of the album by frontman Doug Martsch, one can’t help but feel like something’s missing from the twentieth anniversary performance. 

Oruã, from Rio De Janeiro, start off with a lengthy droning chord on guitar. It’s heavy with distortion. In comes the bass, with repetitive strums filling the atmosphere. The most salient way to describe Oruã’s output is that of a wall of sound, felt bodily from the pounding of the drums, strumming of the guitars, and even from the heavily-manipulated vocals. 

To us, the words are in an unintelligible tongue, but all that matters are the thumping, psychedelic waves of distorted rock. Oruã’s lead and auteur, the multi-talented Lê Almeida, improvises heavily with his axe, holding it close to his chest. At one point he begins sawing at it with a violin bow, creating a ghostly scream of a chord from the amp. A killer opening act. 

Canadians, Slam Dunk follow, half of whom are sporting bushy facial hair. It’s been raining this evening, and they seem to have been caught in it, dampening their clothes but not their spirit. They play in a carefree, loosened fashion, with swirling guitars. It seems they don’t take themselves so seriously, cracking jokes and performing antics on stage. It’s their ten-year anniversary, and their celebration involves playful blasts of electric guitar, bouncy bass, and dancing with Big Jeff. By the end of their set, it seems the rainwater has been replaced by sweat. Slam Dunk are a fun act, if not quite of the artistic calibre of Oruã.

Now, finally, it’s Built to Spill’s turn; the room’s been aching for this moment. Doug marches on stage to ecstatic cheers, and launches into ‘You Were Right’. Accompanying him are members of Oruã, who’ve swapped around instruments. Martsch croons through the song. His hair may have faded, but his voice has stayed colourful.

Between tracks, Doug stays silent, tuning his guitar. The crowd search for an interaction with their idol, but he keeps mum. The band too, so lively while playing as Oruã, keep mostly still, and focus on playing through the set. The sound quality, in contrast, is stellar: Doug’s solos portray a frontman with decades of muscle memory during ‘Temporarily Blind’. Likewise, during ‘Broken Chairs’, his blasting riffs during the lengthy solos are those of a man with pure talent and years of experience to match.

At times it feels slightly soulless—while Doug fiddles with synth and produces killer melody lines, he and the band are stony-faced. Despite this, the long-time fans among the crowd are lapping it up. When favourite ‘The Plan’ starts up, the crowd’s reaction is that of instant joy. 

After a very stagey encore (so early in the set, and the house lights stay down the whole time) the band dutifully returns to the stage. Finally, it feels like something has changed: Doug actually cracks a smile or two while playing ‘Three Years’, and the band are playing with something close to vigour. Oruã’s frontman, now on drums, is playing a particularly good game, with hi-hat to die for. By the time timeless hit, ‘Carry the Zero’ comes along, Martsch appears to have reached his zenith, with energy and a bona fide sense of rock and roll.

Built to Spill’s set will have been a real boon for their die-hard fans, but it seems that the glory days have passed. However, it was still tight and faithful to their legacy, and the gig was rounded out nicely by top-tier support. Overall, a worthwhile evening of music.

See the video for ‘Never Be The Same’ here: