Built to Spill

Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto ON, September 20

Photo: Matt Forsythe

BY Cam LindsayPublished Sep 21, 2019

Built to Spill have always found a way to make things work. One of the most influential bands from indie rock's heyday, they've never left us (or should we say, frontman Doug Martsch has never left us), resurfacing every few years for another new album. They never soared to mainstream success the way Modest Mouse or Pavement did, instead managing to survive on Warner Bros. for more than two decades, thanks to their cult status and steadfast legacy.
There also isn't a bad album in their discography. And although a case could certainly be made for both 1994's There's Nothing Wrong With Love and 1997's Perfect From Now On as their best, 1999's Keep It Like A Secret is widely regarded as Built to Spill's opus.
Now 20 years old, Keep It Like A Secret is in its anniversary phase. Although Martsch chose not to go the deluxe reissue route, touring and playing the album in its entirety was too good to turn down. (The band previously toured Perfect From Now On in 2008 when it turned 11.)
The tendency is often to revisit the classic album by performing it front to back, but instead, Martsch and company completely dissected Keep It Like A Secret, re-sequencing the songs into a set of "whatever feels right on the night." Without sticking to the original tracklist, the band exuded that looseness we've come to expect from their live shows.
They kicked off with "You Were Right," intensifying the guitar distortion to grungy levels. Jaunty single "Center of the Universe" followed, with Martsch working his custom pedal board to cook up the whimsical lead guitar lines.
For most of the set, the four-piece appeared stone-faced, a bunch of shoegazers who looked bored half the time. They all drank from reusable aluminum drinking bottles, and other than the odd "thank you," Martsch hardly acknowledged the crowd. It was only during solos, when he kept his eyes closed, that he showed he was feeling something, as he shredded his way through the notes.
Aside from a rare performance of the nine-minute "When Not Being Stupid Is Not Enough," from their 1995 collaborative EP with Caustic Resin, the Keep It Like A Secret set was an exercise in keeping fans guessing. Album opener, "The Plan," had everyone singing along, while its closer, the eight-minute-plus "Broken Chairs," satiated those looking for Built to Spill to flex their tireless jam band chops.
When they returned for the encore, they played a couple of other cuts from their catalogue. "Living Zoo," from 2015's Untethered Moon, reminded us that it's been four years since their last studio album, and There's Nothing Wrong With Love's "In the Morning," was just the kind of zippy pop song everyone needed.
"How are you all doing tonight?" Martsch finally asked, as he proceeded to introduce opening act Prism Bitch on stage. They joined in to sing along to a crowd-pleasing cover of the Kinks' classic, "Waterloo Sunset," hollering lyrics and dancing around Martsch and his band. A cover of Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets" followed, which allowed Martsch to really explore his falsetto range.
For the final act, they finished up Keep It Like A Secret with "Carry the Zero" to big applause. With this final piece of the puzzle, they said goodbye with an orgasmic session of Martsch solos. On this night he lived up to his virtuosic guitar god status, just without any of the sentimental fanfare that some fans have come to expect from these celebratory tours.

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