So yes, we dipped into the Americana Music Fest a bit last week. And while we of course enjoyed many of the top-notch performances we saw, The Spin — as we mentioned — walked away knowing even less just what the big-umbrella term “Americana” is supposed to mean. On Friday night, we decided to have a little bit of our own personal Americana fest at Exit/In. Because, for all the things “Americana” can possibly mean, couldn’t “smart, expansive, Northwestern indie rock” be one of them? Couldn’t Built To Spill — an American rock band, with a true, American songwriter at the helm — be Americana just as much as, say, Big Star or Bonnie Raitt or Alabama Shakes? Maybe that’s a stretch. But from where The Spin sits, Built To Spill is an American band to be proud of.
Exit/In was sold out long before show time, and as we awaited admission with our pals, several shit-outta-luck dudes cased the crowd on the sidewalk looking for spare tickets. The sounds of openers Sister Crayon’s trip-hoppy warbling fetched knee-jerk comparisons to Bjork, Florence + the Machine and Cocteau Twins from The Spin and our companions. Once inside, we only caught a handful of numbers, but they were all dark, synthy, hip and young with throbbing beats and bouncy, Maynard Keenan-esque moves from frontwoman Terra Lopez. Sister Crayon wasn’t bad, really, but they definitely seemed like a strange choice of opener for Built To Spill. Anyway, Lopez mentioned that she’s a huge fan of longtime Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt, so she scores points for that.
By the time Seattle’s Helvetia began, Exit was as full as we’ve ever seen it, teeming not only with bald old rock nerds, but also youngsters, hipsters, squares, normies and even a bro or two. Also, we’ll say that you couldn’t really ask for a more polite crowd to be in tight quarters with than Built To Spill fans — no pushing, no shoving, no moshing, and loads of apologies any time someone so much as inadvertently nudged an elbow.
Helvetia was certainly more of an aesthetic match for Built To Spill than Sister Crayon. Of course, B2S guitarist Jim Roth is in the band. But on top of that, the songs feature a lot of slide guitar and dreamy, effects-laden indie-rock noodling — mid-tempo Midwestern/Northwestern driving music for flat terrain. Oh, and random, stray bits of confetti fell from the rafters all throughout their set — leftovers from Paper Route’s show two nights before, we were told.
It’s been six long years since Doug Martsch & Co. made their last Nashville appearance, and no amount of Americana showcases or Metric-at-the Ryman appearances or pals’ album releases (sorry pals) was about to stop The Spin and 400-plus of our fellow Spillites from bobbing our goddamn heads to those sweet strains. After mounting the stage and unceremoniously noodling around for a minute, Built To Spill eased into a classics-riddled set. Seriously, they were a half-dozen songs deep — “In the Morning,” “The Plan,” “Velvet Waltz” and “Made Up Dreams” among that batch — before they played anything from their latest, 2009’s There Is No Enemy.
Now, an excellent Built To Spill set doesn’t mean loads of banter (or any whatsoever, really) or crazy stage moves or special effects or dudes wearing shirts that aren’t loose-fitting band Ts. But it does mean note-perfect renditions of songs near and dear to a lot of folks. Songs made up of three interlocked guitars that, on Friday night, wound around one another and reached into The Spin’s chest, melting away the ice that has encased our heart ever since 1999. Set highlights included “Nowhere Nothin’ Fuckup” from Spill’s 1993 full-length Ultimate Alternative Wavers as well as a great big sing-along on “Car,” the ultimate anthem of angst-riddled adolescent uncertainty. Dudes threw their arms around one another and beamed like beacons of manly camaraderie. Fans lining the stairs up to Exit’s balcony grinned and head-bobbed in perfect unison.
Built To Spill kicked off their encore with a rendition of Tommy James and the Shondells’ psych-pop classic “Crimson and Clover,” complete with tremolo and vocal assists from Helvetia’s Jason Albertini and Sister Crayon’s Lopez. They closed with “Virginia Reel Around the Fountain" — technically a song by Martsch’s band with Calvin Johnson, Halo Benders — sending The Spin and our compatriots off into the night with a headful of fine American music and enough good vibes to last us another six years. But please, Built To Spill, don't make it another six years.