We’re in a haunted school gym on a cool November night, and you gotta hand it to Doug Martsch. What other artist could keep 300-plus heads (nestled in overstuffed armchairs and slurping pints of Terminator stout, no less) awake and happy performing acoustic covers of Billy Squier and Daniel Johnston tunes?
Martsch is the unlikeliest of heroes, a guitar deity who quietly maneuvers through his solo acoustic set as if he’s in his living room, four-tracking with headphones on, pajama-clad, unshaven. We love him, though. How can you not? This is a guy who captured Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” guitar solo perfectly on Built to Spill’s 2000 release Live. This is a guy who wrote a song (“You Were Right” from 1999’s Keep It Like a Secret) containing almost a dozen references to 1960s and 1970s classic rock clichés (starting with Kansas, Pink Floyd, the Stones; then Dylan and Bob Seger, ending (get it?) with Jim Morrison). This is a guy whose mastery of late 20th century pop music should humble us all, but this is also a humble guy.
No rock star poses here—Martsch is just earnestly obsessed with the majestic and righteous possibilities of The Pop Song. So it’s not a big surprise when he kicks the evening off by covering the cynical Beatle, with “Working Class Hero” from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. And the covers continue throughout the set, tender nods both to the obscure and the Top 40. Martsch is, after all, comfortable enough with his indie-rock credentials to pull out a sincere copy of the massively-covered “Love Hurts” (among the bad-hair rockers who’ve recorded this one? Joan Jett, Nazareth, and Suzi Quatro). There’s some Clash (“Straight to Hell”) and a frightening version of Billy Squier’s “Learn How to Live”. Frightening because Martsch transforms the early 1980s bombast into a quiet and creepy warning, so strangely and impeccably placed between Built to Spill tracks “The Host” and “Else”.
Martsch is a master at making other people’s music his own; the Clash and Smiths covers sound contemporary alongside his original material. Just as the last three Built to Spill records were real albums, whole uninterrupted sonic experiences, tonight’s set feels well-constructed, but not predetermined. The crowd is actively shaping the setlist: “Big Dipper”, from There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, is a mid-set request. Later in the evening a shout for “Anything from Perfect!” has Martsch switch gears and pull out “I Would Hurt a Fly”. Our hero knows how to live in the moment.
Gone are the glorious raucous moments of a Built to Spill show. This is simple stuff, just a guy with an acoustic guitar plucking the blues. And tonight Martsch is the consummate storyteller: a true voice, high and nasal, stringing together the pieces of his musical past and present.
But don’t mistake Doug Martsch going acoustic for some sentimental VH1 Storytellers rehash, or some melodramatic “time-off” from the trappings of a touring rock band. Built to Spill live is a real-time sonic orgy; you’re sent home with Martsch’s beautiful rock ‘n’ roll daydream ringing in your ears. Part psychedelic maelstrom, part 1970s commercial guitar rock (as heard through the ears of a sharp-as-a-tack 21st century troubadour), Built to Spill is a band building a legion of followers the patient, honest way. Release good record after good record, tour steadily, and dish out the wacky crowd-pleasers. Live shows in the 2001 included a, count ‘em, four-guitar line-up for the full-blown encore ecstasy known as “Freebird”—you heard right, they actually played “Freebird”. But now we’re sitting down, comfortable and lazy—no pedals, no effects, no sassy drum kick from Scott Plouf (formerly of Portland’s 1990s guitar-drums duo the Spinanes). You might wonder, will we miss the heaps of electric boy mojo?
Our answer is sealed with the set-closer. After a shout-out for “Alarmed”, from Ancient Melodies, Martsch picks the last track (“The Weather”) from the same album. It’s a moment of truth and beauty, and a ripple of recognition rolls through the crowd, as each line of the song builds on the last. As Martsch sings, “Do you want to be outside in the sunshine/ Where the song repeats itself inside you?”, it becomes clear that tonight is a love song from a big-hearted guy who truly digs music. All there is to do is say yes, and thanks, and so we oblige. Martsch says thanks right back, and it’s pretty clear that he means it. See ya next time.