The path I followed from first discovering Built to Spill, back in 2002, to my place front and center at Portland’s State Theater last Thursday night is nothing if not post modern. The way we find and consume musical media today seems hilariously random to this late 40something, raised and educated in such matters on 45s and LPs, college radio, live shows, mixed tapes and the ever-vital personal loaning of vinyl.
Here’s how I went from Built to Spill ignoramus to devoted fan: Early in the millennium I dabbled in Limewire, a web-based, Napster-like, file-sharing community where one could search band and song names for download. The first thing I did, upon appreciated the enormity of what Limewire enabled, was reacquire most every 45 I had possessed in the 1970s (this effort yielded some real gems: It never rains in California, by Albert Hammond; Brand New Key, by Melanie; Rubber Band Man, by the Spinners).
The next phase allowed me to sift through contemporary artists I knew way too little about, folks like Ben Folds, Weakerthans, Fountains of Wayne and Dressy Bessy. Soon it became clear that individual treasure troves from all manner of music fans — meaning those thousands who had digitized their vinyl, all their live bootlegged tapes, and transferred all their CDs and random mp3s to the computer — were available, too. This meant older tracks were fair game.
Now, I came of age musically in the 1980s, or, I should say I came into my own at that time. College, an all-vinyl and mixed-tape experience, ended for me in the spring of 1986, when I moved to Boston and there indulged in the Hub’s potent alt/indie scene. There were several bands we followed in earnest, taking in live shows at TT the Bears, The Rat, Club III, The Channel and Nightstage, among others. One band, Big Dipper, came and went all too quickly, and so, 15 years later, I was eager to see what live performances and otherwise obscure files I might procure via Limewire, to augment or otherwise fill out my own digital library.
Yet every time I searched Big Dipper, I got nothing. Nothing, that is, but a song entitled Big Dipper, by this band called Built to Spill, about which I knew nothing. This happened a couple separate times — it was worth Limewiring intermittently on the same subject; one never knew who might be online to share files at any particular time — before curiosity overcame me. I downloaded the BTS version. Listen to that fateful tune here.
Well. These guys were awesome. More specific searches and downloads revealed just the sort of alternative rock I like best, a mix of Dinosaur Jr.’s driving garage sound, Pavement’s unpredictable song structures, the Pixies’ rumbling melodies, and Neil Young’s wistful lyrics/vocals and guitar godliness (a goodly portion of all that thanks to BTS front man supreme Doug Martsch, who gives an interesting interview here). I reveled in this totally new band and the dozens of songs I had come into, each one as interesting as the last. The weird thing was that this band had pretty much come and gone by 2004. Or so I thought. They’d enjoyed their heyday in the ‘90s and appeared broken up, diverted into side projects or put on permanent hold due to solo efforts from Martsch. Or so I learned by reading up on them online.
Built to Spill remained a self-contained obsession. My son Silas adopted them whole-heartedly but hardly anyone else I knew had heard of them or cared much to get on board. I desperately wanted to see them live but figured I was 5 years late to the party.
But then, as happens almost continuously nowadays, the band reformed and started touring again. I saw them at Citi on Landsdowne Street in Boston circa 2006, then again in 2010 at the Paradise. When they scheduled Portland earlier this year, I snapped up two tickets for Silas and myself. Last April, in Seattle, we visited the Experience Music Project museum at the base of the Space Needle. Great freakin’ museum. Spent three hours in there and greatly enjoyed the super-expansive, highly-interactive exhibit on grunge, which included a particular exhibit on the regional scenes across the Northwest — including Boise, from whence BTS hails. Did you know Martsch was also in Treepeople? Probably not.
The Aug. 30 show at The State was predictably thrilling and the less-than-full-capacity crowd, while it might preclude a return engagement, enabled great viewing from a small riser, center stage, just 25 feet from Doug. We stood next to a guy who could not have been 30 years of age, so I asked him how he got into this band from the ‘90s. He was a metal guy. Someone had recommended Built to Spill, and he YouTubed them. The rest was history.
YouTube didn’t exist in 2002, of course. Had it, I might have come by Big Dipper and ultimately BTS with more alacrity. But as they say, better late than never.