1. The man: Some things last a long time. Doug Martsch sang the words (to a Daniel Johnston cover) with Built to Spill in 1994, and nearly two decades later he’s still trekking around the world with his Boise-based indie band. Tuesday night inside the Hard Rock Hotel’s live-music club, the 40-something frontman seemed a bit more disheveled and a tad more detached than the last time Vegas saw him (House of Blues, 2007), but musically, Martsch was unmistakably Martsch. His (seemingly) effortless melodic guitar work still fills a room, and his voice, even in its roughest road condition, still aches with a winsome vulnerability.
2. The sound: It was stranger than I expected witnessing BTS without longtime bassist Brett Nelson at stage right, but his recent replacement, Jason Albertini, did a solid job holding down the quintet’s low end. Less successful, to my ears, was the other half of the new rhythm section, Steve Gere, who somewhat timidly confronted his drums. Also underrepresented in the mix: guitarist Brett Netson, whose instrument fought for air beneath Martsch’s and Jim Roth’s soaring guitars.
3. The setlist: Unbeholden to a new release, BTS had carte blanche to mine its catalog for gems. And though some fans surely left disappointed that the band skipped two of its first four albums—including 1997’s classic Perfect From Now On—the 13-song main set proved to be an interesting blend of predictable and unexpected. Cuts from the ’90s (“Stab,” “Carry the Zero,” “In the Morning”) alternated with tunes from more recent records (“Traces,” “Planting Seeds,” “Wherever You Go”), capped by a noisy, jammed-out version of 2001’s “The Weather.” Of particular note: a three-song run midway through the night that took the far-ranging BTS from big-building rock (“Conventional Wisdom”) through fast-paced punk (“Pat”) to country twang (“Heart (Things Never Shared)”), all in the span of 15 minutes.
4. The encore: Built to Spill’s love of covers is well-documented. In Vegas alone, the band has tried on Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” and Brian Eno’s “Third Uncle” over the years, and I’ve heard recordings of the band experimenting with everything from Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mr. Crowley” to Macy Gray’s “I Try.” Still, what went down after BTS returned to the stage Tuesday ended the show on an extremely odd note. First, Built to Spill played “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths. Guitars roared, the crowd cheered and it felt like something worthwhile had actually been achieved. Then three members of opening band Slam Dunk came onstage and joined BTS for The Clash’s “Train in Vain.” I, for one, began to long for some actual Built to Spill music to close the night, but sadly, the band opted for yet another cover for its final number, this time Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Worst of all: It featured no cowbell.
5. The assessment: All in all, the show featured great moments but wasn’t consistently great. I’d rank it third among the four Built to Spill performances I’ve caught in Vegas, a hair behind the 2007 set (mostly because that one ended without an encore, mercifully) and ahead of 2006’s Vegoose appearance (see: massive technical problems). For me, the king of all BTS Vegas stops remains 2003’s House of Blues show, one of the most spot-on club sets I’ve seen in this town.
“Heart (Things Never Shared)”
“Wherever You Go”
“Carry the Zero”
“In the Morning”
“Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss”
“How Soon Is Now? (The Smiths)”
“Train in Vain (The Clash)”
“(Don't Fear) The Reaper" (Blue Oyster Cult)