“We’re not really a band,” Ben Gibbard said last night as The Postal Service stepped out onstage for its encore. “We’ve all got our own projects, we’re just kind of moonlighting here.”
Which explains why the synthpop outfit has only played Philly twice ever, despite the way its 2003 LP Give Up (celebrating its 10th anniversary this year) escalated from a cult favorite sideproject to a mainstream success. Roll call: singer and multiinstrumentalist Gibbard was busy touring and making albums with Death Cab for Cutie, or as a solo artist. Jenny Lewis was busy being Jenny Lewis (or playing in Rilo Kiley, until that band fizzled out). Beatmaker / producer Jimmy Tamborello had DNTEL going on. Schedules are tough things to coordinate. So at the non-band’s first time back to Philadelphia after debuting at the North Star Bar on April 17 of 2003, its audience was about 40 times bigger, filling out a bustling Mann Center on a breezy evening.
Laura Burhenn of The Mynabirds joined the group on auxiliary instrumentation, and Tamborello had a lording-over-the-proceedings presence, stationed on a riser with his MacBook and mixer. But Gibbard and Lewis were the stars of the show, and seemed to relish those roles. Gibbard in particular – he’s known for being somewhat wooden and awkward as a Death Cab frontman, but here he was animated. He danced, gestured, smiled, moved around the massive stage, and actually looked like he was having a good time. His voice rang out with the crisp range it had on the recording ten years ago, and he made frequent side trips behind a drumkit to mix in live percussion to the programmed beats.
Doing this on “We Will Become Like Silhouettes”, Lewis strutted downstage and led the crowd in pogoing and clapping, hype-woman style. While her voice hasn’t aged as well as Gibbard’s (her lead vocal on “Nothing Better” sounded a bit weary), seeing the band live underscored how much she contributed to the album beyond that song – and her vocals on the opening “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” and “Recycled Air” came across much more strongly. Tamborello, though, ground the latter to a halt with a spate of Daft Punk-esque vocoder vocals – his only unfortunate singing of the night.
Which, of course, is being massively nit-picky. I could be further nit-picky and dissect the new / previously-unreleased songs in the set from the expanded Give Up reissue. (Quick stabs: “Turn Around” was the best, with a grinding beat and thunderous energy; “A Tattered Line of String” was annoying; “Be Still My Heart” was forgettable.) The overarching vibe of the night was a positive one, from the band delivering a lively and commanding performance, to the crowd responding in kind with an extended singalong to the raging closer “Brand New Colony.”
Gibbard even worked in local quips when they fit. “Like Philadelphia’s The Roots said, ‘Sometimes relationships get ill,’” he said to introduce “Nothing Better.” “This song is about that.” Or, “The best band in the world is The Dead Milkmen; the second best band in the world is Beat Happening” before launching into a cover of the latter’s “Our Secret.”
On the one hand, it was a nostalgia trip for people who fell in love with the album a decade ago and never got to experience it in a live setting. On the other hand, it was a set of great music, independent of time or place. Check out a gallery of images from the show and read the setlist below.