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The opposite of easy ...

Built to Spill, McMenamins take restive road
by Mark Anderson

wo trees fell in the forest and everybody heard.

Now our days are filled with thoughts of terror and a bit of a bunker mentality. We try to plow through; the rest of the world's been doing it for years. It isn't easy.

But one good thing about the opposite of easy – it makes everyday life that much more compelling. And a double dose awaited anybody with a ticket to Portland's Crystal Ballroom last month for the McMenamins employee party, featuring Built to Spill.

Mopping up: Built to Spill mixes business with pleasure for the McMenamins employee party at the Crystal Ballroom.

Northwesterners know the McMenamins as a pair of brothers who, since 1974 and without seeming to cut many corners, have refurbished dozens of landmark buildings into earthy pubs, restaurants, hotels, movie theaters and live-music venues. Built to Spill is an un-pop guitar band from Boise, Idaho.

Neither takes the road called easy.

So here's the gig: From noon on Sunday till Monday at 3 a.m., the party bubbles, boils and burns before finally winding down. Buffet, beer and bands; good morning, good evening and good night. Built to Spill's appearance is the big company secret.

At the last minute an extra ticket falls to me.

I climb the stairs to the ballroom – the McMenamins crown jewel – around 8 p.m. Goodness only knows what's already gone down. But the well-stocked buffet line moves quickly and, at its end, two big freezers are piled deep with every kind of ice cream bar.

I catch a pair of lively local acts – Birdy NumNum and Kleveland. Both are especially good. This 15-hour extravaganza is an all-ages show, and the youngsters are enthralled both by the ballroom's renowned bouncing dance floor and the overall good fortune of being included in the big-people's scene. I spot a familiar face.

 Be free: partying with the brothers.

"What brings you here?" I wonder out loud.

"My wife works in McMenamins' office," he says. "Best job she's ever had."

We stand near the stage as Built to Spill makes ready. The band has forged a career out of eking new meaning from powerful, droning guitar lines.

The music begins and swirls of U2, Pink Floyd and Neil Young cannot be denied, but Doug Martsch and company are no mere emulators. "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss," from the recent Ancient Melodies of the Future, is about as close to pop as this band gets, but their catalog is filled with a half-dozen well-received albums since 1993. Theirs is a full-bodied room-filling sound that leaps off the stage and comes out to grab you.

And then, somewhere near midnight, it happens: Built to Spill hits the unmistakable opening strains of ... “Free Bird.”

Can this be for real? It is.

What follows is a scorching, full-blown, hard-rocking rendition – a triple blast of grinding, churning, pulsating guitars. The band has a sense of humor and the horses to pull if off, and things get close to out of hand.

The song, 14-minutes-plus when Lynyrd Skynyrd birthed it (in 1974, coincidentally), seems to take on a half-hour life. The bouncing floor responds like a red rubber ball as the people basically go nuts: howling, dancing, pumping fists, lighting lighters – having fun – much like the good ol' days.

Truly, it's one of those moments.

I take this high note as my cue to leave. And a good night it's been: twice through the buffet line, three fine bands, plenty of beer, a pair of ice cream bars. My wallet remains rusted shut.

On the way out I spot another familiar face – a bartender for the brothers for years, he took up a different line of work for a while, but is back in the fold and happy.

"What's it like to work for the brothers?" I ask.

"Maybe not quite the same as it used to be when the company was smaller," he says, "but still probably better than just about anywhere else."

We visit a few minutes more, then I head down the stairs toward home. It's half-past midnight and white-frocked caterers still run steaming trays of food up the stairs. The party, according to rumor, goes well beyond three; gotta take care of those who had to work till closing at all the other McMenamins establishments, I guess.

I hit the streets under heavy drizzle and head briskly down Burnside toward the car. I reach into my pocket and pull out one final ice cream bar – partially melted due to that unscheduled last visit, but no worse for the wear.

I smile to myself, another day survived. Only one thing's for sure: It isn't going to get any easier.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and visit prior editions of tripewriter.

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