Ben Gibbard Brings Out the Hits at Palace of Fine Arts, 11/13/12
Ben Gibbard at Palace of Fine Arts last night.
Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012
Palace of Fine Arts
Better than: Listening to Death Cab records after 1 a.m. as a college kid.
It's hard to determine what the Palace of Fine Arts feels most like: late evening at a coffee shop, an MTV Unplugged performance, or some symphonic concert hall (okay, that was last time). The room is pitch black, and the crowd seems to have a pact about being absolutely silent during every song. There's no singing along, and extremely limited screen use (be it phone or camera). Assigned seats, naturally.
It's clear this is how Ben Gibbard always envisioned himself performing. The stage is bare -- just the singer, a few small amps, and a piano. A single lamp illuminates the stage, offering nothing more than a faint blue or red hue throughout. There are no distractions to take away from the evening's main focus: his music, its lyrics, its dynamics, its melodies. Gibbard quips early on, "A palace -- that's above my pay grade. Fine arts is not something I do either, I'm more of a middling arts kind of guy." But we all know we're seeing a master practicing his craft. Michael Jordan plays basketball, Bob Ross paints trees, and Ben Gibbard makes deeply emotional music meant for intimate listening.
The night features more than 20 chances for you to have that moment where Gibbard beautifully performs a song that takes you back to a different place and time. "People often say live albums are just greatest hits played faster," Gibbard tells the audience. "This tour is more like greatest hits played slower."
The night's setlist lives up to that billing. It spans Gibbard's entire body of work: Death Cab from any time in its discography, and even crowd favorites from The Postal Service (the mere mention of which riles up the Palace like few other moments. No wonder Gibbard's Twitter bio politely notes "FAQ answered: There are no plans for a 2nd Postal Service record"). Gibbard plays plenty off his first solo release, Former Lives, but even sneaks in tracks from his collaborative effort with Jay Farrar, a soundtrack that was probably heard more than the corresponding Jack Kerouac film (One Fast Move Or I'm Gone) was seen.
Whatever diversity of approach you might expect from Gibbard based on Former Lives does not transfer into the live setting. The genre-bending of those tracks is lost when they're stripped down to their essence -- vocals and guitar, or vocals and piano. The album version of "Something's Rattling (Cowpokey)" contains quirky country and mariachi elements for instance, but here it sounds like a Death Cab tune. This isn't a bad thing. It's a showcase for more of the best Gibbard traits -- clever wordplay and a vocal precision that would surprise even longtime followers. He's pitch perfect on every syllable of those playful ooohh-s.
Gibbard's mastery shows itself in various other ways. On "Dream Song" he casually brings out high-level dynamism from his guitar, crescendoing and decrescendoing like an orchestra member while going off-mic to do the same with voice. He handles a crowd with similar mastery. Gibbard finishes up "These Roads Don't Move" -- which includes the lyric "Now get my ticket and say goodbye / Leave San Francisco behind" -- with a bit of self-awareness. "I know I'm pandering, it's pathetic." That gets a quick chuckle, but he immediately promises that wouldn't be the worst of it. He makes true on his word nine songs later. Gibbard introduces a touching tribute to a recently deceased favorite of his, Scott McKenzie, saying "San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)" was among his favorite songs growing up. It's a rare moment throughout the night where you can hear the crowd gently sing along. Not just anybody can execute this without feeling over-the-top, but even Gibbard's pandering is met with open arms.
Gibbard closes his initial set with another Postal Service tune, "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight," and I find myself having my moment. I'm in a perfectly happy relationship currently and my life was just fine when that song initially debuted in 2003. But Ben Gibbard has us sitting in a room of total darkness, alone with just our thoughts and his performance. He sings "I am just a visitor here, I am not permanent" and the infamous "out of context / I'm just visiting" chorus kicks in. I can't be the only one catching myself fighting back an odd tear. In no way am I sad, but it's all just... beautiful. The music brings back fond memories, the words brilliantly explore emotion, but most of all, a true artist is presenting his work for the world. So yeah, we've all listened to too many Gibbard songs this evening. But we also enjoyed every minute of them.
Overheard: Post-concert debriefing from fans as we walked out: "He was never really that fat."
From Gibbard early on, as he scrambled to say something while tuning: "I can't see you, but you're talking at me. This is what the Internet feels like to me."
Setlist (Note: This is likely two songs short at the beginning, due to some trouble at the box office)
2. Title and Registration
3. Dream Song
5. When The Sun Goes Down On Your Street
6. These Roads Don't Move
7. Grapevine Fires
8. Dream of Evan and Chan
9. Lady Adelaide
10. Something's Rattling (Cowpokey)
11. You Can Do Better Than Me
12. Duncan, Where Have You Gone?
13. Unobstructed Views
14. Blacking Out the Friction
15. San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)
16. Teardrop Windows
17. Farmer Chords
18. Crooked Teeth
19. The District Sleeps Alone Tonight
E1. Soul Meets Body
E2. A Hard One To Know
E3. I Will Follow You Into The Dark