Among the near-capacity crowd of 700 or so who came to see Built to Spill at State Theatre Wednesday night were dozens of scenesters of frontman Doug Martsch's vintage (40ish), an old girlfriend of mine, a couple hundred younger indie rock fans who'd have come whether the show was Dinosaur Jr. or The Books, and about 50 blissful die-hards who swayed exuberantly and knew every single word. For the stalwarts it was Christmas. For everyone else it was a damn good show.
The night's bill was Pacific Northwestern up and down, featuring Sacramento-based Sister Crayon's blend of limpid, Björk-y vocals and wall of reverb; Seattle's Helvetia, farm-fresh off their September 11 release Nothing in Rambling and happily joined by BTS guitarist Jim Roth; and of course, Built to Spill themselves, the pride of Boise, Idaho. I get the feeling they're a clan who'd been around each other a great deal, a hunch corroborated by Helvetia's merch guy Mike, who was kind enough to give me the lay of the land and lend me his flashlight, all the better for scribbling in the dark.
The audience already numbered about 100 when the first openers were finishing up, a convivial crowd gathered around the foyer bar as a revolving clutch of anxious youngins smoked cigarettes outside and talked shop about the headliners' last appearance in St. Pete, in 2010. Based on my conversations with them, there were many return customers. Always an auspicious sign, unless you're talking Insane Clown Posse.
Following Helvetia's prosaic but enjoyable Sonic Youth-esque guitar hymns, steady and sure, Built to Spill provided a nice continuity — as you might expect given the shared region and milieu — but also delivered an undeniable gravitas and a more punctuated equilibrium, with more bridges and fewer lingering verses. They opened with "Traces" off of 2006's You in Reverse, which set a strident tone and established the essential tension of the set: that between garrulous eight-minute jam-outs (see "Velvet Waltz" from 1997) and punchy, college radio-ready pop songs like the more recent "Hindsight," circa 2010. For the most part, they split the difference in a way that seemed satisfying to all without sacrificing coherence. It was a live balancing act, dynamic and lovely.
While drummer Scott Plouf and bassist Brett Nelson put in sedate, workman-like performances, Martsch gave the audience a healthy dose of a raucous nod I call the "Kermit head bob," sending his vocals careening off every part of the mic and leading many of us to mimic it right back at him. Jim Roth brought his usual spastic rhythm, best observed here. They most fully hit their stride during the aforementioned "Velvet Waltz," when half the audience closed their eyes and smiled while BTS waxed epistimelogical: "You thought of everything / but some things can't be thought." It was a line that was lent extra poignancy given security's pursuit at the time of whoever the hell was smoking a joint. Explained one young man, "I don't know whose it was. Anyway, I think it was done." (The culprits were never brought to justice.)
After almost every song, Martsch called out a simple "Thanks," evoking the politesse of Rivers Cuomo, and he seemed to really mean it. At one point, after "Made-Up Dreams," he told us, "I'm really psyched to be back in St. Petersburg," to which one member of the crowd saw fit to add, "It's the best thing that ever happened to you!" He indicated that he might not go that far. (All three bands did an inordinate amount of onstage tuning, which I like to think was due to the 80 percent humidity.) Though I wish I'd heard cult hits "Twin Falls" and "Big Dipper," by the end of the nearly two-hour set, I felt consoled because I was sure that that old girlfriend of mine was totally still in love with me. Or at least with Built to Spill.