With pandemic lockdowns that have been among the most extreme in the country and a large population of folks who are weirdly reluctant to get back to normal despite being vaccinated, live music is hard to find in Portland, Oregon these days. Yet, while much of the city slowly tries to crawl out of its pandemic fears and a year of bad publicity, music lovers and venues have been getting creative to bring music to people desperately craving it. One of these venues is the World Famous Kenton Club, a delightfully divey outpost in north Portland that transformed its parking lot into one of the better performance spaces in the city. On Wednesday, June 9th, the club hosted Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch for the first of two sold out solo performances.
The unassuming Built to Spill frontman took the stage with only a few acoustic guitars and few words, quietly greeting the audience before launching into a set that would include a mixed bag of originals and tasteful covers. Though the set didn’t include any crashing guitars or soaring choruses, it did put Martsch’s uniquely melodic vocals in the spotlight. He would balance delicate acoustic playing with his vocals on a small handful of Built to Spill songs as well as playing slide guitar on some of the bluesier tracks from his 2002 solo effort Now You Know. Cover tunes would dominate the setlist though, with Martsch putting his personal touch on the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” Cat Stevens’ “Trouble,” the Velvet Underground’s “Stephanie Says,” the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular,” The Clash’s “Straight to Hell,” and an especially moving take on Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” to close out the evening. He didn’t introduce any of the songs, trusting the audience to identify the song he was playing.
Built to Spill has always been a full rock band, so seeing its front man perform in such a stripped-down setting felt a bit out of the element. This wasn’t a bad thing, as Martsch gave the attentive crowd ninety minutes to soak up his songs and those of others while basking in something that we once took for granted. As Portland struggles to get its footing amid post-pandemic life, this evening was a pleasant reminder of what is possible and what is hopefully just around the corner as we put away the masks and gather in front of stages once again.