Doug Martsch might just be one of the most unassuming rock and roll legends of all time. If you knew who to look for – a sort of balder, approachable-looking Jeff-Daniels type – you could’ve spotted him before Built To Spill’s set at Union Transfer on Friday night, hanging out around the edges of a house slowly filling in, alongside fans enjoying the evening’s opening acts: first Itchy Kitty, with their iteration of stutter-and-hiss golden-era CBGB punk; followed by Prism Bitch, bringing an excellent pun as a cherry-on-top of a kinetic set of uniquely updated melodic 90s rock a la Tuscadero or Veruca Salt, and notably anchored by the thunderous percussion of Teresa Esguerra, who would return shortly to drum for Built To Spill as well.
Exhibit B: In a kick to the sternum of conventional rock-and-roll stagecraft, Martsch, Esguerra and bassist Melanie Radford set up their own gear during the break, and then never left the stage. There was no fanfare after Prism Bitch wrapped, no dramatic interim pregnant with the anticipatory whistles of impatient fans baiting the headliners to show themselves. The trio took their places on a spare set, waited for their strobes to adjust, and quietly began stummed the opening chord of “Reasons” from 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love: “Come through me,” appealed the singer, shaping extended, euphonic vowels in his iconically fragile, signature tone. “You arrive, and I’m on fire.”
Despite the band’s appearance in support of When The Wind Forgets Your Name – their latest studio release and the band’s first in seven years – they featured just one selection from that record. Instead, their 17-song set was a tour of lesser-known tracks from better-known records, and overlapped hardly at all with their last Philly appearance, less than a year ago at the same venue. This time around, they went heavy on Keep It Like A Secret and You In Reverse, covered just one song (by the Ohio rockers Heartless Bastards), and landed on “Carry The Zero” – their beloved anthem about the special kind of heartache that comes with loving something so much you break it.