Friday, September 19, 2008

I'm gonna be perfect starting now.

On Wednesday (Sept. 17), I saw Built to Spill and Meat Puppets at Toad's Place, with The Drones opening up. For Built to Spill and Meat Puppets, this was a tour connected in part to both bands' appearances at the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival's "Don't Look Back" series, in which key indie bands play certain epochal albums in their entirety. For BTS, this was Perfect from Now On; for Meat Puppets, this was Meat Puppets II. Both bands have spun off this invitation from ATP into tours wherein they're continuing to play the songs from those albums, front to back.

The Drones opened, and though they're from Australia, I know I've seen them before, opening for someone. They played meaty, mid-tempo (or sometimes just plain slow) two-guitars-bass-and-drums rock music, mostly in minor keys. Their songs are melodic and feature well-placed squalls of guitar noise -- it's an atmospheric, tension-building thing -- and they play as though they "mean it," urgently and with a lot of raw-nerved, throaty, passionate vocalizing from their lead singer. Hearing and seeing them, I was reminded of a smarter, more sincere version of the brooding alt-rock that ushered me into adolescence so many years ago. But after five or six songs, it got a bit samey. One gets the idea. There was an intriguing short set in here, but a full set felt downright dirgey.

I'd been looking forward to Meat Puppets' set. I'll admit: Meat Puppets II has been the only album of theirs I've heard that's really grabbed me. I can hear how its key elements (country and psychedelia into punk) have been absorbed by other bands, their peers and those who came later, and so it's difficult for me to imagine how weird and wonderful it must've sounded at the time, but I can still recognize the significance of the fact that they were doing it first. That album still holds a particular mystique and strangeness. Unfortunately, the band trampled all over that mystique. I recognize Meat Puppets' right to do whatever they want with their own back catalogue, but they blazed through the set with little regard to dynamic or nuance. Cris Kirkwood lunged all over the stage, his bass rather low in the mix and poking through only when he thrashed at it most vehemently -- in terms of pitch and attack, his playing was quite erratic. Curt Kirkwood sang clearly at points, approaching the unhinged high-register voice he employed during the mid-'80s, and his guitar leads often shot right off into space, but often the band was mired in devil-may-care thrash and blank, shouty vocals. The energy level was high, but the songs suffered for it. If I weren't already familiar with the album, I doubt that set would've demonstrated to me what was so special about it.

Built to Spill was another matter. I had high hopes: Perfect from Now On is one of my absolute favorite albums ever (blah blah blah, I was going through a rough time, a friend of mine handed me this CD, blah blah blah), and I'd already seen the band twice, both times at Toad's, once in 2000 and once in 2005. I'd been listening to Perfect from Now On quite a bit over the summer -- while driving up to Litchfield in August, along state roads passing through New England's forests and fields, I figured I had the most ideal musical accompaniment imaginable. However, no matter how right that disc felt along Connecticut's backroads with the windows down, it still didn't match seeing and hearing the songs erupt in front of my face. The band played it fairly straight, but with three guitarists and a cellist, they really could play it straight and still surpass the heights of that ambitious, layered album. It was great to see Doug Martsch playing those leaads again -- when I saw BTS in 2005, he was playing largely rhythm, and as solid as the band is, there's something special about his sensibilities as a player. (Worth noting: Doug's stage banter. Most of it consists of, after a song, his high, reedy and quick proclamation: "Thanks.")

Perfect from Now On is over an hour long and Built to Spill, in accordance with the tour's promise of "... and other favorites," followed up with the eight-minute-long "Goin' Against Your Mind," and all of that added up to, evidently, more than Toad's could deal with. While the band was prepared to keep going -- getting the cellist set up for another song and everything -- the show had to stop, shortly after midnight, to accommodate a pre-scheduled late-night dance party. The lights came up onstage and the DJ kicked in a thumping beat. Clubbers were already queued outside. It was a weird juxtaposition.

I didn't have a camera at this show, but New Haven Advocate blogger Tom MacMillan did, and he took some excellent photos, which you can view here (along with some comments I usurped for this particular post).

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