The terms “vehicle” or “project” are used occasionally in discussions about bands with a focal instrumentalist or songwriter, and in many cases, these would seem like appropriate descriptions for some of today’s most adored groups with morphing identities.
But the question of how much exploration has been done or how much ground has been covered might be best reserved for the more veteran outfit still striving to outdo itself with each studio album.
In a recent anticipated stop at 9:30 Club, Built To Spill demonstrated that it is indeed actualizing the goal its founder — vocalist and electric guitarist Doug Martsch — set for it 30 years ago: to become an inventive, absorbing indie rock outfit with a rotating cast of members that could help perpetuate evolving substance and sound.
Though few have had any complaints over the course of this Boise-based band’s timeline, it was announced in 2018 that — after years of a fairly steady lineup and the development of a world-wide following — Martsch would be changing the personnel every so often to survey the studio space, and the entity shifted from what had typically been a five-piece arrangement to a trio.
On the road as the newest rendition of the touring band on May 12, Built To Spill arrived in town in the form of Martsch along with bassist Melanie Radford and drummer Teresa Esguerra, a squad that came to be in 2020.
In 2018, Martsch teamed with Jason Albertini and Steve Gere to record Built To Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston.
Stream Built To Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston via Spotify:
Last week in the nation’s capital, this trio put on an engulfing, mind-bending presentation of the band’s captivating and influential catalogue, pulling from six of the 10 studio albums, as well as sampling the forthcoming album, When The Wind Forgets Your Name, what will be the first Built To Spill record released in seven years.
Martsch, who with his calm demeanor might have almost seemed separated from what was in front of him at any given moment, proved that he was in fact totally immersed in gripping the room in his own thoughtful way. Through the cogent and psychedelically nurturing collection of songs, Doug reminded that he is indeed a true master of the electric guitar and a genius in his ability to craft thrilling, thought-provoking and unthinkably climactic compositions around his melodic, reverberating playing style characterized by his own natural approach to sliding.
Standing patiently and peacefully on the unadorned stage, with a Fender amp tipped on its left side and some controls placed on top of it, Martsch had his eyes closed and his head tipped back just slightly to start the night with “The Plan,” the opening track from the now-classic 1999 album Keep It Like a Secret.
His voice was in its inquisitive frequency to begin the night at 9:30 Club, and this track’s design set him up for several unbelievable solos. By mid-song, he appeared in full-stride with his hands flying across his deep blue Stratocaster to yank towering, overwhelming riffs with uncommon curvature and a definitive sharpness to every note. And by the end of this admirable ambition, the audience was in total awe and Doug was in a sweat, the beads already glistening off his brow in the low light.
Martsch would keep his eyes down on his guitar or just close them for stretches of the night — “removing one sense to strengthen the other,” Doug said of his often-shut peepers in a reddit AMA thread he hosted several years ago. And he would find a higher octave in the second song, a sprawling take on “Living Zoo,” a track from 2015’s Untethered Moon that featured Doug’s voice as more elongated, calling out as he brought together this dynamic offering of alternating speed.
Radford, who led the night’s second opening act as lead vocalist and bassist of Blood Lemon, showed herself to be an absolute warrior in working a double shift, meticulously laying down the labyrinth of lines that provide foundation and complete the essential mood in Built To Spill songs new and old. Impressively, she would step out of the low-end in some songs originally written for more than one shredding guitarist, playing what would be a guitar section in some moments. She would lean over her Ernie Ball Music Man and let her hair fling, tossing her head back and revealed her joy in handling these complex progressions like a pro who’d been at it for decades.
Pounding alongside Martsch to his left with the drum kit positioned sideways facing him, Esguerra was sensational and a revelation with her impassioned thrashing and her infectious positive energy — the speed of her arms and her bursts of emotion as songs continually built and crashed became a glorious site to behold. Teresa, who’s additionally the drummer for Prism Bitch, helped this trio explode through the performance and she showed such care in adjusting speeds and targets as the set ventured across dynamic terrain.
As Martsch would perform his wizardry on any given song, Radford and Esguerra would look across the stage at one another and, in a symbol of organic musical bliss, they’d let out screams or hysterics, and Doug every so often would glance a warm expression of his own, a sign of approval for these two outstanding musicians.
Watch the music video for Built To Spill’s 2022 single “Gonna Lose” via the band’s YouTube channel:
The group would perform one of the latest BTS singles, one destined for the new album in “Gonna Lose,” and its vocals and instrumentation wove in and out of itself in a progressive nature to further engage members of the crowd who’d throw a single fist in the air, bang their heads to every possible note or just stare up with their mouths agape.
Inviting to the stage the night’s first opening act, Jordan Minkoff, who performs as Wetface, the trio became a group of four as Jordan’s additional vocals helped color a dreamy, emanating version of the favorite “Kicked It In The Sun,” from 1997’s Perfect From Now On. A talented visual artist in addition to being an adept organist, Jordan created the two newest Built To Spill videos, and he along with Blood Lemon would receive praise from Martsch throughout the evening.
Listen to Built To Spill’s 2022 single “Understood” via the band’s YouTube channel:
“Hey, how you all doing tonight?” Doug finally asked after the room was long under his command. And he’d head into somewhat unexpected territory with an endearing, eventually majestic cover of Cat Le Bon’s “Are You With Me Now?“ that featured his voice in a pleading oscillation for the chorus and charming Strat licks that danced over hammering drums and sulky bass.
A compelling and ceaselessly smashing tribute to Doug’s longtime friend and former Treepeople bandmate Patrick Brown, “Pat” from 2009’s There Is No Enemy showed Doug, Melanie and Teresa at perhaps their most intense and, if not, it at least tested their timing. This jam blasted out of the gate at an extreme speed and never slowed, as this group was clearly up for the challenge, embracing it and grinning wide to one another as the venue space took on a volatility.
Fans were treated to a vast, transforming edition of “Stop The Show” before an unforgettable take on “You Were Right,” which still plays out like an underappreciated achievement in songwriting from Keep It Like It A Secret. In DC, it was given timeless resonance and an epic build to add fervor to these captivating lyrics, which were brilliantly poetized from a list of some of the most loved rock songs of all time.
Pulled from the only live BTS album released to date, “Virginia Reel Around the Fountain” is a cover by The Halo Benders and, performed at 9:30 Club, it seemed like an appropriate adoptee within the setlist — its rotating vitality and immensity rocked the V Street venue.
In an amazing example of the trio injecting a different energy into a Built To Spill standard, Melanie and Teresa were particularly arresting in a wild, hallucinatory “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” a relentless piece from You In Reverse. And the night would culminate with one of the most relatable, abiding Built To Spill songs, “Carry the Zero,” which boasts more than 25 million streams on Spotify. Authentically forlorn in their transmission, and despite a disguised surface, these words are as gravid as they were when first heard more than 15 years ago:
“And now it’s coming back / Hasn’t it come too far? / I was trying to help / But I guess I pushed too hard / Now we can’t even touch it / Afraid it’ll fall apart”
Returning to the stage to encore, the trio rewarded the room with a track that — like much of the Built To Spill catalogue — has stood the test of time to remain one of the most noteworthy rock submissions of the last 20 years: “Conventional Wisdom” from You In Reverse.
An undeniable and convincing creation that fittingly combines the abilities of Doug’s vocal pitch and his mastery of the guitar, this composition read like a saga at 9:30 Club as the final song of the night. The audience was there for every turn of the page as Martsch soared to astronomic heights in churning out the legendary phases of this song of unmatched sentimental proportions, and Doug validated that — like only the godliest guitar players who came before him and inspired him — he can still raise the hair on the arms of his listeners.
“I’VE BEEN WATCHING THEM FOR 25 YEARS,” declared one seasoned fan in a BTS tour shirt, and he wasn’t alone as the room was clearly filled with choosy music goers who’d marked this night on their calendar weeks ago.
Stream Built To Spill’s 2015 full-length studio album, Untethered Moon, its last leading up to the forthcoming album, via Spotify:
Wielding such a lasting, all-powerful sound of distinction and guided by the peerless vision and creative leadership of Martsch, Built To Spill used the visit to DC as sufficient proof that this band — regardless of its roster or the gaps between record releases — has shined brightly since its formation in 1992 and has carved out a niche of alternative rock to put itself in limited company.
If this lineup does indeed turn out to be a fleeting one, as seems to be the idea, then bravo to Martsch for assembling it in the first place. By decidedly resetting the makeup of Built To Spill, Martsch has undoubtedly reinvigorated this project as a model of its kind and given it new legs at a time when music — live, recorded, all of it — is more needed than ever.
Kicked It In The Sun
Are You With Me Now? (Cat Le Bon cover)
Stop The Show
You Were Right
I Would Hurt a Fly
Virginia Reel Around the Fountain (The Halo Benders cover)
Life’s a Dream
Goin’ Against Your Mind
Carry The Zero
Conventional Wisdom (encore)
Here are images of Built To Spill performing at 9:30 Club on May 12, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.