Because my musical sensibilities arise, first and foremost, from the punk-rock
end of things, I am not the first guy that you think of when the term "jam band" comes up. By and large, the (make a high-pitched noise) "neemyneemyneemy" of Jerry Garcia's extended spacey jams -- or Phish's, or Moe's... -- is enough to make me yawn, get angry and leave whatever event is causing me the pain, but there are exceptions.
When Neil Young and Crazy Horse stretch things out, I dig it immensely. The same is true of Built to Spill.
Wait, you think BTS is an "indie" band, I bet. They are, but they are, at this point, an indie band with jam-band sensibilities. They extend *everything* live, and they do so differently, night-to-night, on some songs.
So what's the deal.... What's the difference with Neil and Built to Spill that somehow keep my interest when the Phishy people of the world generally make me irritated and tired? Is it just that Martsch and Neil share the same, er, unusual vocal delivery?
No, I think it is all about dynamics, and really.... what's more eminently "punk rock" than dynamics? The loud/quiet/loud shift has been ruling my roost going back to the Stooges, MC5 and Radio Birdman and continuing through Sonic Youth, Dinosaur, Jr., Uncle Tupelo, Fugazi and countless other bands that shared in common the knowledge that the single easiest knockout punch in rock and roll is delivered by first bludgeoning, then sucking all the air out of the room with a quiet part, and then pow! Your face just melted. The alternative take on this approach is waves of undulating quiet and loud bits that build into a frenzy. It all gets you to the same place -- cathartic musical euphoria.
Both Neil (at least with Crazy Horse) and Doug Martsch of Built to Spill get all of that. They employ feedback, distortion and the juxtaposition of quiet and loud as weapons of tension and release. But BTS has one simple edge over Crazy Horse: where Neil generally takes *all* the solos, leaving Poncho to bang out the rhythm, BTS has three guitarists. And while Martsch takes *most* of the leads, he doesn't take them all, and all three of them, on nearly every song, are contributing different parts that add to the sonic stew. This is no simple matter of one guy soloing while the other strums.
Typically, Jim Roth (born 1962... yay old guys), is slashing and burning chords, while Brett Netson (not to be confused with bass player Brett Nelson) is off in the musical stratosphere, sometimes with sizable help from a wah pedal. And then there's Martsch. Someone -- Elvis Costello, I think -- once said that Richard Thompson can take the listener from Nashville to Beirut in one solo. Martsch is nearly that good as well.
And he keeps getting better. The setlist last night at Union Transfer in Philly was heavy on the '90s, but some of those songs on those albums don't have the rising and falling extended guitar jams that we heard. And the studio versions of the ones that do -- like "Stab" and "Broken Chairs" -- are still meek pretenders to the dynamic glory of the live ones that we heard yesterday evening.
I remember thinking, after an incendiary "Stab," only three songs into the set, that they were going to have trouble matching that. I shouldn't have worried. The next song -- the Halo Benders' "Virginia Reel Around the Fountain" -- was nearly its equal. And "Nowhere Nothin' Fuckup" and "Distopian Dream Girl" got stratospheric on the solos where the studio versions seem firmly locked on the ground. All the while, Martsch, Netson and Roth jumped on and off pedals, controlling the waves of interwoven guitar fury. It was pretty damn mesmerizing.
And then, for the last song of the night, it all got nuts. "Broken Chairs" is eight minutes long on the 1999 album Keep It Like a Secret. It's twenty minutes long on the live album that they released the next year. We didn't quite get twenty minutes, but holy hell it was long, and dynamically intense. The guitars slashed and burned and wailed and howled for most of it, but then -- just when the godawful annoying frat boys in front of me had finally given up their stupid dances, their hugging, their high-fiving, their back-slapping and, yes, their backrubbing (boys, I hope you all are sleeping with each other, because I have seen newly-coupled couples touch each other less than you guys did; it seems like an awful waste otherwise) -- Martsch backed off his solo and Netson took over. In a second, we sonically teleported from 1991 Neil and Crazy Horse circa Weld to 1969 Pink Floyd circa Saucerful of Secrets. Wow. Netson must have ridden that slow-burning, chiming, wah-pedal solo for three minutes while Roth and Martsch gently strummed, lying in wait. And then, teleportation re-engaged, Marsch nodded to Plouf and we crashed back into a Crazy Horse-inspired distortionfest that they drove home to conclude the song.
It had been eleven years since I last saw these guys. It won't be eleven until the next time.
If you want a small, insufficient taste of last night's glory, here is "Stab" from a (strangely, seated) show last year in Braddock, PA, and it is followed by a video of "Broken Chairs" from a Seattle show, also in 2011, that, sadly, does not have that amazing Netson wah-driven solo in it. This one is all Martsch, but it burns fairly white-hot nonetheless.
UPDATE: Apparently "Broken Chairs" *was* 20 minutes long. Here is a video of it (from the Philly show) with poor lighting but good sound. They head for Pink Floyd around 6:43 and crash their way out of the mist at about 13:12. Not for everyone, but I am swooning.
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