Who the fuck is able to stay out until midnight on a Monday night?
Portland, OR 05/14/2018
Okay, this is a rhetorical question but here goes: who the fuck is able to stay out until midnight on a Monday night? Especially for a show featuring Built to Spill and the Afghan Whigs, two bands that had their heyday in the ‘90s. Maybe I’m wearing my old man hat here, but while a four-hour concert featuring two extremely beloved bands is very generous, it takes a certain breed of cat with the knees and back of a 20-year-old, and perhaps no day job, to make it through this sort of endurance test.
Check this out: opener Ed Harcourt played a mostly solo set of elegiac songs from 8:00-8:30pm. Harcourt, who hasn’t released a new record since 2016, played to a mainly empty venue, but still emoted and sang to the few fans who turned up early to catch his performance. Then, even though the stage was fully set-up for the Afghan Whigs, we waited for 30 minutes for Greg Dulli and his band to take the stage. The band played for 75 minutes, longer than some full sets that other bands play at other shows. Then, we had to wait another 30 minutes while the stage was cleared. Finally, just before 10:45pm, Doug Martsch and Built to Spill began their 80-minute set, finishing up just after midnight. Yowza. That is almost a half day at a music festival right there.
During the wait time between bands, my friend and I puzzled over just how a Built to Spill/Afghan Whigs co-headlining tour came into existence. Choosing two headlining acts is a dicey proposition, especially if they are quite disparate in sound. It was interesting to note from my vantage point at the front of the stage how many of the people around me turned over between the two sets. Is there a common thread between Built to Spill’s sparse, lo-fi songs that tend to sprawl into extended musical jams and the Afghan Whigs’ radio-friendly rock that reaches into both indie sounds and, dare I say, even hair metal? I kept thinking about the time I saw Bob Dylan and Phil Lesh do a co-headlining tour back at the turns of the ‘00s. Dylan was on first. I went home after his set.
Dulli and the Whigs played a 16-song setlist that leaned heavy on their newest albums, Do the Beast (2014) and In Spades (2017). Though Dulli and his songs can sometimes come across as ham-fisted, the singer and his band delivered, putting loads of energy and musical precision into the set. I always find it a little funny when tough guys sing, and Dulli is an imposing presence on the stage, whether he is pacing about and staring us down or shouting at a woman because she forgot to turn off the flash on her phone (to his credit, someone did warn us at the beginning of the show to shut those pesky flashes off). Behind Dulli were a series of amplifiers adorned with scenes featuring the Pyramids, a skeleton and a guillotine. Though many people sang along, the Whigs didn’t play too many old songs, save “What Jail is Like” from Gentlemen. Dulli did whip out some Andrew Lloyd Webber with his cover of “Heaven on Their Minds” and closed out the set by including a snippet of “Boys of Summer” entwined with “Into the Floor,” which basically sounds like “Boys of Summer” on steroids.
If Greg Dulli felt too in-your-face, then Built to Spill’s set, though really great, was the poster child for on-stage introversion. While the Whigs have been playing more or less the same set each night on this tour, Martsch and company have been changing it up each performance. The Portland fans got a 14-song show that featured five tracks from Keep It Like a Secret and three from There’s Nothing Wrong with Love. Kicking off with an extended “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” Built to Spill’s set was technically amazing, but lacked a little in the emotional department, especially for a band never afraid to air its emo tendencies. So, while “Else” felt melancholy and “I Would Hurt a Fly” menacing, neither song pushed deep enough into their respective emotional territory. Hell, Martsch only smiled twice the entire evening, once when he caught a fan taking a photo while he set up his myriad of pedals and another time when he fucked up a lyric.
Built to Spill’s setlist was definitely a fan’s dream. Not only did we get the aforementioned songs but also “You Were Right,” “The Plan” and “Car.” Martsch even honored Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders with a cover of “Back on the Chain Gang.” By the time the band returned to play an encore of “Broken Chairs,” it was past midnight and the crowd began thinning out like the hairlines of many of the folks around me. For those of us who stuck around, it was an excellent end to a strong night of music. Maybe the goal was to sell more drinks, but I agree with this idea that has been floating around the web for some time now: there is no shame in a show ending earlier than midnight. You don’t want your fans paying for a night out the following morning.