Love that Doug Martsch: grunge survivor, underground-bred character on par with fellow bearded wonder Will Oldham, and a soulful musicmaker who keeps finding new twists and turns in the Built to Spill sound. When I spoke with him three years ago, he was still reeling from a series of injuries suffered during pickup games on the basketball court -- a major Martsch passion. He detached a retina at one point, and on another occasion, while playing ball at the Tenderloin’s Golden Gate YMCA, he popped an eardrum and went deaf in one ear for a few months.
The man was built for spills -- but he’s only come back stronger onstage. After putting in an appearance at Outside Lands earlier this year, Boise, Idaho’s Built to Spill returns for a two-night benefit stand for (RED)NIGHTS at the Fillmore Oct. 31 (that’s right, no Cramps for Halloween with the sad, sad passing of Lux Interior) and Nov. 1. A portion of the proceeds of each installment of (RED)NIGHTS, a series of concerts that aims to raise awareness and funds in the fight against AIDS in Africa, goes to the Global Fund.
The new Built to Spill album, There Is No Enemy (Warner Bros.), finds Martsch positively reveling in an effortless mellow and dialing down the incendiary dueling-guitar interplay a couple notches. Welcome to life, post-2008 presidential election, in the throes of recession. It’s not so much the fight is gone, but the question lingers on There Is No Enemy: What next?
And what of the paths not taken? “What about Canada / It’s paradise with pines and ice / Morning comes in freight ships while you’re sleeping / Batting two ideas with no surprise,” Martsch croons on “Hindsight.” “Good Ol’ Boredom” might point to an underlying theme, with its 4/4 beat, gently vibrating guitars, and a loping shimmy reminiscent of AOR giants like Tom Petty rather than the more familiar touchstone of Neil Young. Incoming: the joys and frustrations of getting what you wanted and the banality of the everyday. Taking on the persona of a working stiff nickel-and-diming it in the USA, Martsch intones, “No one knows because no one wants to,” on the opening track, “Aisle 13.”
There are still cleanups in aisle one, two, and three, along with larger worries and anxieties, but that’s not to say that there aren’t a few sweet, new wrinkles to Built to Spill’s music: life’s small terrors seem handleable as you are lulled by the cello and lap steel on “Nowhere Lullaby” and the unexpected admixture of stately brass and woozy wah on “Things Fall Apart.”
Built to Spill performs Saturday, Oct. 31, and Sunday, Nov. 1, 8 p.m., at Fillmore, 1805 Geary, SF, as part of (RED)NIGHTS, a benefit concert series for (RED), a nonprofit helping to eliminate AIDS in Africa. $25-$62.50. (415) 346-6000, www.livenation.com.