Built to Spill plays simple show at Mr. Smalls

After a couple of embarrassingly bad opening performances, it soon became clear that on Monday night at Mr. Smalls, Built to Spill had a clean-up job to do.

Thankfully, the Idahoan alt-rockers took to the task with refreshing and unassuming professionalism, as well as a little bit of fun that broke through in quick spurts throughout the night.

Drawing a crowd of college-aged kids and middle-aged adults alike, the band — which was founded back in 1992, before many of those college kids were even born — put on a performance that highlighted its ability to remain relevant without sacrificing its modest and simplistic approach to music.

By the time Built to Spill took the stage at 10 p.m., the show’s expectations had been heightened after the poor and seemingly improvised effort put forth by opening acts Slam Dunk and The Warm Hair, whose goofball antics on stage quickly grew annoying.

Led by frontman Doug Martsch, Built to Spill played a lengthy and straight-faced show. The fan-friendly set featured songs spanning the band’s entire career — including tracks from 1993’s Ultimate Alternative Wavers and 2009’s There Is No Enemy — which made for a nicely paced exploration of the band’s history.

In addition to the band’s own catalogue, a handful of covers made their way into the set list, including a soothingly lo-fi cover of Pavement’s “Here,” in which the natural quivering of Martsch’s voice conjured undeniable similarity to Pavement singer Stephen Malkmus. This came after the band’s own song, “Built to Spill,” during which Martsch’s voice wailed and cracked enough for the song to be mistaken for another Pavement original.

A stunning and well-practiced cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” — which came second in a three-song encore — was perhaps the highlight of the show. It may have also been the only song where Martsch kept his bobbing head still enough to sing directly into the microphone, allowing an enthusiastic audience to join in.

Apart from a single candle on top of a wooden box labeled “Buffalo Field Campaign”, there was no backdrop or stage props of any kind — only the band’s five members. This kept the show stripped of external distractions so that Built to Spill could operate the way they do best: focused on the music. 

This simplicity also put more focus on the band’s somewhat timid presence on stage, and Martsch’s droopy eyes rarely left the floor. When they did, he closed them. The only time he addressed the audience was when he murmured an occasional “thanks” after every other song. This allowed the band to breeze through their lengthy set list, most of which ended characteristically in blaring guitar jams.

Despite his reservations, Martsch remained the focus of the audience’s attention. Cries of, “I love you, Doug,” consistently rang out from the audience between songs, in mostly futile attempts to break his concentration.

Though the members of Built to Spill come off as deeply serious, this stoic professionalism fails to conceal how much they enjoy what they do, which makes for a great experience.

While the band was preparing their equipment for the encore, yet another, “I love you, Doug,” erupted out of the antsy crowd. As usual, the band members’ focus was not fazed — until someone else added, “We love the rest of you guys, too.” This single exclamation caused the entire band to stop what they were doing and smile to themselves before responding with an earnest shout of “We love you, too.”