Ben Gibbard loosens up at The Keswick Theater (review, setlist)

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Photo by John Vettese

“I was worried about playing this show,” Ben Gibbard told the crowd at Glenside’s Keswick Theater last night. “I mean, not worried about being here, but more what kind of vibe today would have. But I’m very happy right now.”

Maybe it was because he was on post-Election Day cloud nine, or maybe it’s just the format of the tour, but this solo appearance had a loose mood and lively personality that we rarely get to see from the Death Cab for Cutie frontman.

For all its epic songs and their transcendent peaks and valleys, the Seattle band – historically speaking – is kind of a drag in concert. Over the years, they’ve repeatedly come off as too locked-in, too stiff, evidently unmoved and maybe even kinda bored by their own spectacular music. When Gibbard did banter with the crowd at those full-band shows, there was an air of detachment.

At the Keswick, we saw the complete opposite. Gibbard was lively, funny and conversational. He delayed starting songs so he could goof about filing his nails for maximum guitar-playing acumen, or talk to members of the audience about what books they were reading – he’s tackling Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace – or compare and contrast Seattle and Philly. “We don’t have much,” he said. “Coffee, grunge, Sub Pop Records, Barsuk Records. But those are all great things to have, and in different combinations.”

The informal, unfussy nature of Gibbard’s performance bolstered the 27-song setlist, which had a handful dragging moments. He pulled not only from his recent Former Lives solo album, but also from across the Death Cab canon and other solo and collaborative ventures. Songs from The Postal Service’s Give Up album fared particularly poorly – his solo acoustic “Such Great Heights,” sounded more like a cover of Iron & Wine’s popular cover of the song, which was doubly perplexing, and “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” had no trace of the original’s dynamic build and vigorous pulse.

That said, his performance of the song that sparked his Postal collaboration with Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan” – was bright and uplifiting, easily a highlight of the night. “Grapevine Fires” from Death Cab’s Narrow Stairs was stirring when reduced to just acoustic guitar, while “Blacking Out The Friction” – a jagged guitar rocker from The Photo Album – was unexpectedly interpreted on a grand piano, with grand results. Its resonant keys rang from the rafters of the Keswick’s lofty ceiling, later recreating the enormity of Transatlanticism’s “Passenger Seat” (but sounding perhaps a bit too massive for the jaunty “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?” from Former Lives).

The snappy new single “Teardrop Windows” sounded great when Gibbard switched back to acoustic, as did Death Cab’s “Crooked Teeth.” His rendition of The Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl,” not so much – on this tour, Gibbard planed a city-specific cover for each show (G.G. Allen in New York, etc.), and while the gesture was appreciated, the surprise was nice and Gibbard’s ability to remember almost all the words was admirable, his voice just sounds too dang serious when singing the silliest of righteously silly songs.

But that’s okay. Gibbard laughed about it himself when the tune was over, and made some self-deprecating commentary about the line that he flubbed. And then it was on with the show. Minus all those lengthy musical passages and evocative sonic trips, his Death Cab songs at their skeletons are rather short and punchy, and he aimed to fit as many of them in to his 90-minute set as possible. When working with such a volume, there are bound to be some misfires, but when you’re having fun with it, even the points that don’t work still kinda do. Now if only Gibbard could infuse his full band with this same spirit.

Setlist
Shepard’s Bush Empire
Such Great Heights
Oh, Woe
These Roads Don’t Move
Title and Registration
Dream Song
Cath…
Where Our Destination Lies
Grapevine Fires
(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan
Lady Adelaide
Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)
Passenger Seat
Duncan, Where Have You Gone?
Unobstructed Views
Blacking Out The Friction
I Was A Kaleidoscope
Teardrop Windows
Punk Rock Girl (Dead Milkmen cover)
Farmer Chords
Broken Yolk In The Western Sky
Crooked Teeth
The District Sleeps Alone Tonight

Encore:
Soul Meets Body
A Hard One To Know
You Remind Me Of Home
I Will Follow You Into The Dark

  • seattlefan-exphilly

    I’ve seen video of the Dead Milkmen cover, and it was sweet and funny! Wish I had been there – will never happen again.