All of the curly mustaches and overgrown beards in Chicago surrounded me at the Metro (3730 N. Clark St.) on Nov. 14: Built to Spill was playing. Built to Spill was one of the great indie guitar bands of the ‘90s (though the band makes great music in this century as well) and was also soothers and producers of some of my best teenage angst.
My first dorm’s wall featured Built to Spill’s lyrics written in my freshman hand: “Stay with me until I die / There’s nothing else I wanna try.” What a romantic era. So in the history of music and of Brian, Built to Spill is a band of the past.
Yet once the band began playing, it was vital. Built to Spill emoted and jammed with greater intensity than the youngster band which played before it. Most songs consisted of a few verses, several minutes of jamming and then another verse to close. Somehow the three guitarists, led by singer Doug Martsch, made these jams swell with sound and power; the crowd intuitively responded.
Though Built to Spill has some great lyrics, it wasn’t the words, and though it has some good guitar hooks, it’s wasn’t the notes. Instead, the band moved the crowd with sound: one of the most distinctive (and whiniest) voices in indie music and the beautiful, shimmering notes Martsch’s guitar produces.
The extended jam on “Velvet Waltz” cycled four chords over and over, provoking an increasing impulse to sob and embrace the nearest concertgoer with each repetition. The whole room was thrilled.
After this, I started seeing spots. The music was really that powerful, it was just full of – no, wait I just was about to faint. My winter jacket and the packed bodies were overheating me. I told my plus one to keep his spot and clumsily pushed through the crowd and stripped to my shirt, which didn’t seem to bother anyone. “This isn’t that kind of show,” I expected someone to say. It was difficult to find a good view of the band after that, and I wandered through the balcony.
Two thoroughly inebriated men slurred something indecipherable and then gestured at the space in front of them, where I had a great view of the band and a group of people in their fifties and sixties, sitting at the expensive VIP tables. They wore bright sweaters that only a very unhip parent or very hip hipster would wear, and I thought, “What a delightfully diverse crowd Built to Spill draws. Everyone can enjoy its music.”
Then Martsch pointed directly at our little group and said, “This one’s for my mom.” The song was beautiful, but not as exciting as the realization that I was standing amidst Martsch’s adoring parents and siblings. They swayed adorkably, drank wedding-amounts of alcohol and turned to hug one another often. It was like watching parents tailgating at a college graduation. I secretly hoped people would think I was his nephew or something.
The band encored with covers of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and The Smith’s “How Soon is Now?,” the synthesis of which is essentially Built To Spill’s ethos: classic rock jams that are about being lonely instead of sex and drugs. This brought up another interesting dynamic: Martsch’s mother was rightfully proud, but he likely had a pretty rough adolescence to write these angst anthems. I wonder if she feels simultaneously accomplished that she raised a son who shares his emotions with so many people, but also guilty that she has a son with so many dark emotions.