The Builders and the Butchers Sell Out in Denver

There are so many shows that I look forward to every year.  I buy tickets in advance, invite everyone I know, make pre-show plans and in the end the actual performance is diminished, becoming nothing more than the soundtrack to another night out.  This is why it is so exciting when I make a last minute decision to check out a band and that band ends up blowing away any expectations I didn’t have time to make.  Portland (by way of Anchorage) indie folksters The Builders and the Butchers did just that at Hi-Dive on Saturday night.  It was a wet, cold night before Easter and the the West Coast band sold out their first show outside their own timezone, marking this as a historic performance for both the band and those lucky enough to be in the audience.

The Builders and the Butchers made their first blip on my radar back in February with Lullaby, a song which preaches the message that ‘killin’ is better than livin’ if you are alone’.  A song that made the short list for my first from the basement tape but fell short for the simple fact that it sounded too much like a Decemberists cover song.  A month later I downloaded a copy of the full album from which that dark lullaby came and I felt pretty much the same way.  Dead Reckoning was an intriguing work of Southern Gothic/indie folk/history lesson, but I could not shake the feeling that I was listening to castaways from that other Portland band.  But then came the glowing review from Nine Bullets (from a self-described Decemberists ‘hater’) and I knew I must be missing something.  Over the next couple months that something became apparent, but never more apparent than it was standing a few rows back while Ryan Sollee and the rest of his builders and butchers (minus Ray Rude, who fell off a train and broke both arms?) tore the roof off the Hi-Dive.

For the first time in years I was alone on Easter weekend and instead of taking advantage of the situation and leaving town, I decided to stick around and get some spring-cleaning done.   That didn’t happen.  Somehow Friday night came and went, along with Saturday morning, afternoon and evening and still I had accomplished nothing.  It was 10:00pm Saturday night and I found myself pacing the house.  It was too late to meet up with friends in Winter Park, too early to go to bed and there was nothing on TV, so I got in my car and drove down to South Broadway to check out a band I liked but didn’t love.

I paid my $10 for a wristband and went next door to Sputnik for an $11 cocktail.  30 minutes later the Sold Out – Do Not Ask sign was taped across the set times in front of Hi-Dive and the place had officially filled up.  It was 11:30pm and The Sunshine House had wrapped up and Damion Suomi & The Minor Prophets were rockin’ the stage.  I can’t say I could hear them very well from the ‘bar’ side of the venue, but from what I could make out they were having a lot of fun.  A song that had to have been called Holy Ghost had the place shakin’ and the closer )with members of The Builders and the Butchers) brought the word ‘hootenanny’ to mind.  The prophet party wrapped up just before midnight and The Builders and the Butchers took no time at all getting their set started, barely leaving time to grab another beer.

For a sold-out show it was surprisingly comfortable over on the ‘venue’ side of Hi-Dive.  I took my usual spot about five rows back against the south wall and that’s where I was at 12:10am when they got the red ‘sexy light‘ just right and started the set with an acapella The Night Pt. 2 before a countrified cacophony led into Spanish Death SongSollee‘s nasally voice telling stories of tragedy coming ‘across the land like the spanish influenza‘ and soldiers burning houses to the ground doesn’t help to differentiate them from The Decemberists, but no matter how many similarities there might be, these guys are their own band.  No disrespect to Colin Meloy and crew, in fact I just saw them a couple months ago and they put on a good show, but where they come off as professors teaching you ancient history through song, The Builders and the Butchers take a first person’s point of view, they ARE the badasses in the stories they tell.

It’s no secret that I’m not a huge fan of the layout of the Hi-Dive, so I’ve got to give credit to a band that can instantly make me forget where I am. From the first hand clap to the last song the five guys onstage proved that this is what they were born to do. For such a young band to have such a connection with their audience is very rare. I think I was the only one in the room that did not know every word to every song. Rednecks with confederate flag tattoos, hipsters with glasses, punk rock kids with piercings and pretty blondes in designer jeans made up a unique crowd that had one thing in common, a desire to drink and sing and dance. My attention span usually directly corresponds to how well I know the material being performed, but on Saturday night the reactions were contagious and I felt like I had grown up on these songs that I had never heard before. Golden and Green, Vampire Lake, The Coal Mine Fall and the closer (not gonna leave the stage and come back up, it’s too late for that bullshit) Black Dresses were all highlights. But the real highlight didn’t come until the the band followed Sollee off the stage and into the ‘bar’ side to perform an acoustic sing-along version of Find Me In The Air followed by a cover of Simon and Garfunkel‘s Cecilia. I first experienced this ‘playing from within the audience’ move when Jesse Malin did it at Cafe du Nord a few years back. It seems to be the new thing now with bands like The National, The Rural Alberta Advantage and now The Builders and the Butchers. I like the trend.

A lot of bands talk about the the pain of trying to recreate the energy of a live show while in the studio, so I didn’t pay much attention when I read Sollee verbalize those challenges on their website. But in the case of The Builders and the Butchers (along with Drive-By Truckers, Lucero and a few others) he is absolutely right. When he talks about the ‘quiet, serene, and controlled’ recordings being ‘the opposite experience of a live show‘, you can almost feel the loneliness of the studio versus the feeling of being surrounded by hundreds of your closest friends in a dive bar. This is a band that HAS to be experienced live. Once you have that baseline you will be able to enjoy their recordings at a whole other level.


The Night Pt. 2
Spanish Death Song
Cradle on Fire
Bottom of the Lake
Black Elevator
The Coal Mine Fall
Golden and Green
Family Tree
Vampire Lake
I Broke The Vein
Black Dresses

Find Me In The Air (acoustic from audience)
Cecilia (Simon and Garfunkel cover, acoustic from audience)

The Builders and the Butchers – Dead Reckoning
(Badman Recording Co., 2011)

While this album pales in comparison to the live show, it will hold you over until they come back through town.

The Builders and the ButchersLullaby

Full Reviews:
Nine Bullets
Pop Matters