Built to Spill, Meat Puppets, The Drones @ Rams Head Live

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MP3: Built to Spill – Stop the Show (Live) from Live (1999)

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MP3: Built to Spill – Three Years Ago Today from Ultimate Alternative Wavers (1993)

Wednesday was my first time at Rams Head Live to see the always spectacular Built to Spill (Myspace/Wiki).  I got there at about 8:30, just in time to catch the last five songs from poorly advertised opener The Drones.  After going to the bar and specifically requesting the cheapest thing they had (a $5 bottle–which would have been an awful deal if I had selected anything other than the Beck’s I chose) we settled in to watch The Drones, who were a pleasant surprise.  I’ve noticed that Built to Spill seem to tour with bands who match well with their intricate guitar pop audience, and these guys were no exception.

Sonically the band plays with shifting dynamics, tempos, and various effects, similar to Built to Spill, but, as their name implies, they impart a good kick of feedback into the songs.  Their lead vocalist and guitar player tended to emote a lot in the songs, which was fine except that I couldn’t make out what he was saying.  Rams Head’s acoustics are lamentable, and for bands whose sound relies so much on dynamic changes, of which Built to Spill and the Drones are prime examples, it’s hard to fully appreciate what’s going on onstage.  It was ok for Built to Spill, whose songs I already knew through and through.  But for the Drones I often got the sense that chords were changing and I didn’t know where or how.  Kind of like listening to an early Archers of Loaf record.

I missed most of Meat Puppets.  We had to drink, and it wasn’t going to happen there so we went next door.  By the time we got back they were most of the way through their set.  I’ve seen them before though, so I know they were good.

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If this was your first time seeing Built to Spill and you didn’t know any of the songs on this record, then I don’t think the show did them justice.  The room was mixed terribly, so if you were standing anywhere but the exact center of the room one of the amps seemed to dominate the rest.  That’s kind of inexcusable.  I’ve seen them in far seedier venues and every note and every change in dynamics was as crisp and pristine as if it were off the record.  But the band actually seemed to compensate and focus on the rhythmic aspects of the songs.  It’s a shame that the band would have to compromise when they were specifically trying to play their most complex album all the way through, but I still would rather have seen this show than almost any other active band.  Let’s just hope that if My Bloody Valentine ever comes to Baltimore they don’t play at Rams Head, at least not under those conditions.

I can’t be a total downer though.  The band looked to be in great shape.  Especially fun was the conclusion when they invited both Kirkwood brothers of Meat Puppets and the lead guitarist of the Drones to play an extended, largely improv version of “Car”.  Anyone who can manage to write their kind of intricacies into a standard pop melody and then actually stand up to the challenge of performing their records live deserves commendation.  If you’ve never listened to Built to Spill before, I can’t give them a higher recommendation; they’re second only to Pavement and The Beatles in my book.  I’ve played them for fans of every kind of rock music from pop-punk to prog-rock and I can’t think of anyone who didn’t like them once given a chance.  They’re that rare combination of impressive on all fronts–musically, lyrically, and compositionally–and really fun to listen to, an almost impossible feat to pull off, which is why I put them in the same sentence with those other two bands I mentioned.  Built to Spill aren’t as effortless, for the craft behind the music is a little more evident, but that’s a petty fault for a band with so much to like.  If they spawned a flock of imitators, that’s fine; there are far worse bands to look up to.  Let’s hope they come back soon.

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