Breaking away from a band and performing solo is always a risk. If executed poorly, it can expose a songwriter’s weaknesses and highlight the necessity of their bandmates. If executed successfully, it serves to prove that even in their most skeletal state, the songs presented are truly great compositions at their core. The good outweighs the bad, but the risks are clearly there.
Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie and The Postal Service fame is no stranger to acoustic tours. Over the course of the last 15-plus years, Gibbard has played a handful of acoustic shows to test out new material, revisit old material, or, as he did in 2012, play songs from his first proper solo album. This month, Gibbard embarked on a very brief run of solo shows—three to be exact—and one of them was Wednesday night’s Pabst Theater outing.
Opening the evening was Julien Baker, the 21-year-old singer-songwriter wunderkind and recent Matador Records signing. Though not of the region herself, Baker’s music possesses a distinctly Pacific Northwest quality, recalling the songwriting of David Bazan, Elliott Smith, as well as Gibbard. There was a reverb-drenched spaciousness to Baker’s material (slightly reminiscent of another Pacific Northwesterner, Grouper) that gave her songwriting a dreamy haze that appropriately fit her voice and intricate guitar work. As Baker played selections from her 2015 debut Sprained Ankle, her voice gorgeously resonated through the theater.
Following Baker and a short changeover, Gibbard took the stage and launched into “Title Track,” the opening track off of Death Cab’s 2000 album We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes. When he immediately followed it with “Photobooth,” another song from the band’s early days, it was made apparent Gibbard was going to be drawing on a wide variety of material spanning the last two decades.
“Me And Magdalena,” a song Gibbard wrote for the Monkees’ 2016 album Good Times! was, if anything, obvious proof as to why Gibbard was chosen to contribute to the project in the first place. “Duncan Where Have You Gone,” a song from Gibbard’s Past Lives album, translated far better live than its recorded counterpart. Radio hit “Soul Meets Body” was given something of a reinterpretation, with Gibbard rearranging it into a moodier, slower piano arrangement—a refreshing take on the normally mid-tempo pop song. “I Will Follow You Into The Dark,” which is possibly Gibbard’s most popular song to date, was performed in a such a way that it hardly acknowledged the heavy obligation to include it in the set.
The evening was not without its flaws. “Cath,” off Death Cab’s 2008 effort Narrow Stairs, lacked the driving force of Gibbard’s bandmates, leaving the song feeling lifeless and empty. And when stripping away the programming prowess of Jimmy Tamborello, The Postal Service song “This Place Is a Prison” sounded underdeveloped and monotonous. “Unobstructed Views” dragged on even more aimlessly than it does on Death Cab’s 2011 record Codes And Keys. “Black Sun,” a song from Death Cab’s semi-recent Kintsugi, sounded like little more than a Gibbard song painted by numbers.
Missteps aside, the good outweighed the bad, and the sometimes lackluster performances were greatly improved by Gibbard’s excellent stage banter that was full of wit and humor. The song backgrounds gave the show an intimate Storytellers-esque mood, and his personal anecdotes on everything from Black Flag to olive oil to turning 40 were a charming addition to a set that sometimes left a bit to be desired.
Leaving the stage after over an hour’s worth of music (but informing the audience to know he was going to “pretend to leave, walk three feet, and come right back”), Gibbard returned to the stage to perform a gorgeous rendition of “Line Of Best Fit,” the final song on Death Cab’s 1998 debut album Something About Airplanes. Closing out the encore with “The Sound Of Settling” and the Postal Service hit “Such Great Heights,” Gibbard ended on a high note by choosing songs that much better lent themselves to sparser arrangements. This abbreviated tour was a unique way to see a beloved band’s primary songwriter in a new way. But don’t quit your day job, Mr. Gibbard: You may be the boss, but your bandmates and collaborators are far more valuable than you may have previously thought.