All photos: Eric Uhlir
Ben Gibbard walked on the stage unannounced. A guitar slung around his body, he was accompanied by silence, singing “Shepherd’s Bush Lullabye” from his new solo album “Former Lives.” Not one to deny his fans their favorites, he strummed into Death Cab for Cutie’s “St Peter’s Cathedral” to much applause. The usual mix of lovesick and bleak mystery pervaded the set, juxtaposed even in these first two songs of the set. (“As you sleep an ocean away / And know that I love you / My every thought is of you” versus “Or if these fictions will only prove / how much you’ve got to lose”). And again, being as fair as he could, switched back to new material, playing “Oh Woe.” When he sang, his face contorted into this sincerity, like his emotional turmoil was being painfully exorcised from his body. A well practiced act, he made singing his songs look easy. His songwriting style fits more words where than should be said, clever half rhymes that fit anyway, punctuated so your ears perk up. In reality, most ordinary humans might be out of breath, and fumbling with their guitar chords. They’re lyrics that always seem to allude to something larger than they could ever say, some mystery of the universe they allude to but never quite spell out. This was fitting, under the gold painted stars of the Sixth & I Synagogue, mystery cast over everything.
He slowed down versions of classic Death Cab and Postal Service era songs, in an effort to keep them fresh: Title and Registration, When Soul Meets Body, Grapevine Fires. The most interesting song revision of the night was “The District Sleeps Tonight.” It had an almost folksy feel to it, which contrasted heavily with the song’s original sweeping electronic movements. Resonant and sad, it struck me that these songs are as they usually are but made even more haunting by the acoustic solo performance. It was Gibbard surrounded by instruments, the occasional roadie and a sound engineer. But it seemed much lonelier than this catalogue of those in attendance. The way he talked, it seemed like him, alone. Or maybe the atmosphere the music created has me talking that way. Gibbard played a tune (he was fond of calling songs “tunes”) he wrote with friend and fellow songwriter Jay Farrar (of Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt), “Willamine.” Something bothered me though; I’d never heard this song, but it sounded familiar. Gibbard cleared this up at the end, saying “Hey, I know what you’re thinking. ‘Does that song have the same chords as Wicked Game by Chris Issak? Yes it does– don’t tell anyone.”
“I’ve come to the piano act of the program, open your programs to page two,” he said before launching into an even more intimate set: “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?, “Unobstructed Views,” “Blacking Out the Friction,” and a surprise song I’ll describe later. This was especially intimate, the piano songs, “Unobstructed Views” being the best and longest instrumental build up.
Gibbard played us a song that was “in a film” while he was in Death Cab for Cutie. It was in a film, he said, and it was a good film, but he wanted to play it for us. He kept avoiding naming this film, a title unknown to me: “Arthur” starring Russell Brand. He left the audience to wonder why he wouldn’t name it. The song, anyway, was “When the Sun Goes Down.” There was a lot of interesting commentary by Gibbard through the night: “This song is about when you know the answer to your problem and it’s keeping you awake at night,” he said before another new track, “Dream Song.” “That was an old cowboy song I wrote new lyrics to,” regarding Lady Adelade. “Growing up Catholic is weird … I don’t believe in that stuff anymore,” about wine and its likelihood of simultaneously being blood. Regarding a request for the Freebird of Death Cab for Cutie Songs, “Bixby Canyon Bridge”: “I’m sorry, that wouldn’t work as well as this.” And then, out of nowhere (I’m paraphrasing, but trust me, he was unraveling): “I got new flannels the other day. I got pissed off they didn’t ask me to to design these because it’s all I wear. If you go into my closet that’s all I have. It would be the only thing I’d put my name on. ‘The Face of Flannel.’”
The new song “Something’s Rattling” jostled me awake from this dream I was having, this dream that I lived in a world where everyone can sing well. This is not to insult the bad singers, it’s to say I was taking this for granted. The song, anyway, has a particularly ambitious chorus of falsetto oohs that showed off Gibbard’s real instrument, his vocals. He’s got a register that catches between most soulful or air thin voices. It took all my energy not to sing along with Gibbard, so many songs heard on repeat through high school and college come out of the tiny boxes I’d packaged them in a long time ago when I moved on from Gibbard’s various mutations. They bubbled up inside me, almost escaping as full words but usually leaving by simple humming. Many of my fellow audience members were not so self-limiting, surrendering to the catchy, singable nature. “Cath” proved extremely challenging. In the days after the show, my boyfriend kept asking me why I was singing “that song” over and over again. I couldn’t help it, leaking the same couple of lines again and again (“you said your vows/and you closed the door”). There is no sealant for this kind of thing.
Ending with “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” “When Soul Meets Body” (accompanied by himself on piano), his final tune was a slow, methodical version of “Such Great Heights.” He also played something completely unexpected. Leading in, he said he tried to do something special for each city. After a few words about how those who listened to punk or alternative rock were never the same after DC’s music scene developed, he launched into an acoustic version of Minor Threat’s “Filler,” treading in soft, soft footsteps over the original genre of the song. I think I’ve seen everything I need to see in the world of music. Ben Gibbard covering Minor Threat. That’s all, folks.