Reprising a Classic Built to Spill Record, For Good and Ill
We have come to watch haggard, hirsute, immobile, relentlessly uncharismatic men rip dispassionately through vicious, meandering, apologetically melodic guitar solos that remind us of our years as college-radio DJs, and tonight we shan't be denied. The Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr., and Built to Spill, by God, all mashed onto one Thursday-night Terminal 5 bill, the latter performing 1997's "get all spilt on some green and contemplate the cosmos" sad-rock epic Perfect From Now On. "This album came out my senior year of high school!" shouts the ecstatic gentleman behind me to his no doubt similarly rapt companion. "But I didn't get it until the next year, when I was in college. I used to lie down . . . and get high . . . and freak out. It was awesome." Even if you were chemically unaffected, it was, and still is—but not so much in person, and definitely not with that guy around.
The Meat Puppets go first, sounding initially like when the dudes in a garage band all switch instruments at the end of practice and just "jam." The effect is intentional, a psychedelic and deeply surreal desert-punk bastardization of loping country-rock, brought to you by the flailing burrito brothers: manic, wiry Cris Kirkwood on bass, and dexterous but laconic Curt Kirkwood on guitar, the latter clad this evening in, I do believe, pajamas. They too have indulged in this sweet new trend of reprising classic albums front-to-back for reverent and nostalgic crowds, hooting and hollering through the sun/drug-damaged Dali/Dollywood of 1984's Meat Puppets II, and while tonight's is a conventional, career-spanning set list ("Severed Goddess Hand," still sublime), Cris and Curt dutifully plow through that album's trio of tunes lovingly and beautifully appropriated by Kurt Cobain for Nirvana Unplugged in New York. "Plateau" and "Oh Me" are surly, gnarly beasts tonight, and "Lake of Fire" is so rushed and crabby you'd think it was being performed at gunpoint, Curt curtly speed-mumbling through the lyrics—wheredobadfolksgowhentheydie—as though reading off the unpleasant side effects of Levitra.
Dinosaur Jr. has also triumphantly reconvened lo these past few years, with prodigal bassist Lou Barlow—a bizarre amalgam of dorky and cocky—perhaps the only performer tonight remotely concerned with Showmanship. He preens and pouts, but frail frontman J. Mascis still both steals and wields the thunder, cradled by three looming Marshall stacks, the two on the outside both titled slightly toward the one in the middle, like a tailor's mirrors, the better to aurally admire himself as he fucking blazes, volcanic eruptions of feedback bashed into scuzzy but nonetheless deeply comforting riffs and violent, epic solos. "Freak Scene" and "The Wagon" are still great; "Feel the Pain" is still great fun. Tonight is fully dedicated to reprising and at least momentarily restoring the primacy of the guitar, and while such unabashed ax-worship has its drawbacks (endless tuning sessions after every song), Mascis can trigger a warm rush of wistful exhilaration without visually betraying one iota of exhilaration himself.
Nor does Built to Spill ringleader Doug Martsch regale us with high kicks and witty banter. Not that he ever did, actually, but tonight's main event feels particularly inert, distinctly lacking in spontaneity and surprise, a perhaps unavoidable byproduct of everyone knowing the set list in advance. This is my inaugural "play an entire album" soiree, and as in thrall as I remain to Perfect From Now On, with its immaculate melding of classic-rock grandiosity and indie-rock fragility, the impact suffers when every punch is telegraphed. Hoping and praying that Doug deigns to play "Velvet Waltz," and rejoicing when he finally does, is a far different—and, substantial risk (that he won't) notwithstanding, far preferable—situation than the safe but dull assurance that of course he'll play "Velvet Waltz." Fifth.
And yet. The reverence awarded this album is heartwarming, and also kind of hilarious: the lusty whoops that greet the intimate opening strains of "Randy Described Eternity," the way everyone pumps their fists when Doug yelps "I'm gonna be perfect from now on/I'm gonna be perfect starting now." And he certainly brought along enough firepower to re-create the album's smeary, incandescent, towering Neil-Young-With-Even-More-Flannel firestorms, with three guitars, a mournful cellist, and a forcefully swinging bassist rumbling about. That much artillery, in turn, plays hell with a band's notions of delicacy: The raucous, full-power coda of "I Would Hurt a Fly" translates vividly, but the soft, quiet, full-song buildup is mostly muddied and swamped out. It's full-bore intensity you need, though, to make the still-mighty "Velvet Waltz" sing, and even if the three lead-guitar lines are more or less indistinguishable from each other in all that racket, you get the idea, and the idea is you oughtta lie down and freak out all over again.
Nonetheless, when you're openly invited to compare tonight's reprise of a beloved record to your deified memory of the record itself, it's easy to nitpick: to vastly prefer the blunt, brutal summary of "Stop the Show" on that one live record BTS put out to the sluggish, disjointed original version on Perfect, the difference between a fantastic trailer and the terrible, endless movie it advertises. And more to the point, no one's more bored and unchallenged by this format than the band itself. Doug and the boys chug dutifully through the abrupt, joyous pivots of "Kicked It in the Sun" and the various meanderings of closing epic "Untrustable Pt. 2," but when you know all the motions in advance, it's way more noticeable when the band's just going through them.
Which is why it's a great relief when the album ends, and the concert doesn't. "Untrustable" hasn't even quite crapped out yet when the drummer starts hammering the rudimentary beat that stomps undaunted and unchanging through the much-newer "Goin' Against Your Mind," a two-chord basher that visibly and audibly liberates the band, Doug's vocals and demeanor suddenly much more fervent and engaged. And thus is the undeniable highlight of a concert devoted entirely to one album one of the three songs that isn't on it. We wrap up with a loping, rudderless "Virginia Reeling Around the Fountain," Curt Kirkwood (still in pajamas) sneaking back out to whack on the drums for awhile, back in the garage at the end of practice, everyone just farting around, freed from the tyranny of an 11-year-old track list. It was slightly annoying but defiantly unscripted, and at that particular moment, the latter was more important.
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