It’s hard not to get overly sentimental about a band like Built to Spill playing at a venue like Bristol’s Thekla. It’s been about a decade since the alt-rock royalty were last in the city, but tonight (May 2) they coast into town for a sold-out fixture and deliver an effortless reminder that they’re still at the top of their game.
While this run of special live dates has seen the Idaho band returning to their original concept of a rotating line-up, the tour is primarily casting an appreciative eye back at their defining album ‘Keep It Like A Secret’, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. Frontman Doug Martsch, though, doesn’t seem like one to get too gushy about this sort of thing: he’s a nonchalant presence tonight, and barely utters a word until near the end of their set. If you saw him in the street you probably wouldn’t look at him twice, but on-stage Martsch transcends a coolness and grips the audience.
Following the likes of ‘You Were Right’ and ‘Temporary Blind’, you begin to notice that there’s an absorbing air of appreciation from the crowd who’ve gathered in the packed hold of the boat venue: it’s not often that people whisper like it’s a library at a show as loud as this. It’s noisy and calculated grunge that commands such respect, but there’s so much melody and meaning behind it. Built to Spill transport you into the leafy backstreets of suburban America with these flawlessly executed songs, so much so that it actually verges on a feeling of Americanised nostalgia for something that is usually only witnessed through coming-of-age films and TV shows.
It’s one of those nights where each track lights a new fire in the room with its familiarity. They roll through ‘Keep It Like a Secret”s emotional ballads, like fan favourites ‘The Plan’ and ‘Time Trap’, and you can see how Martsch is clearly enjoying himself: he splurges out lengthy guitar parts, shredding and constantly altering a neatly arranged set of guitar pedals on a flight case to his side. It’s playful and adds a significant value to the songs, but never strays into self-indulgence: this is clearly a musician who still loves playing live.
They close on ‘Carry the Zero’, a song of true beauty which leaves us soaking up every lyric. When you consider the legacy that other bands in their ballpark have gone on to create, it feels both criminal and yet weirdly beautiful that Built to Spill are still playing venues of this size. Not only have they given us a reminder that they’re still one of the best live bands around, but they’ve also demonstrated that they’re still a largely unheard voice of a generation. Most of all though, the punters in the Thekla tonight are just happy that they’ve been let in on the secret.