Stepping into the Wilshire Ebell Theatre last week, I took in the surrounding elements of a venue I didn’t even know existed a month ago. When I initially heard about Ben Gibbard’s tour, I noticed a trend in his choice of venues — historic ballrooms, theaters, and even synagogues — all reflecting the old-soul musical style of one of America’s most beloved singer/songwriters. I had high expectations for the night, especially after hearing that his previous Los Angeles performance at The Largo at the Coronet included music from Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service’s catalogs, and I couldn’t wait to hear the music that soundtracked my high school experience. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Shortly after I took my seat, the lights dimmed, and Damien Jurado, one of the greatest unsung heroes of the indie rock genre, took the stage. I was pleasantly surprised by the contrast between the artist’s sultry, brooding lyrics and his witty banter with the audience, and though the room wasn’t yet full, the people in attendance were well versed in Jurado’s music and appreciated “Sheets” just as much as I did. He expressed his appreciation for the size of the Wilshire Ebell in comparison to his previous Silverlake Lounge and Satellite performance venues, but played to the larger crowd with poise and ease, embracing even his mistakes with good humor — including a mid-song breakdown of “The Sound of Settling” — before closing out his set with an unplugged performance of “Let Us All In.”
Ben Gibbard — frontman of Death Cab for Cutie, one-half of The Postal Service, and now a solo artist — has had his hand in the mix of so many influential groups over the past decade that it’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t heard his signature vocals on the radio, in a commercial, or within a feature film. As expected, the room was full by the time Gibbard appeared on stage with just a guitar in tow. He greeted fans with “Such Great Heights,” and in keeping with Jurado’s repartee, Gibbard was equally open to the crowd and encouraged conversation. I was blown away that I was sitting just a few feet away from an artist, who, just a few years ago, appeared to me as a speck on the stage of the sold-out stadium at Nokia Theatre.
The greatest part of this intimate performance was Gibbard’s willingness to elaborate on the thought-process behind some of his songwriting. I can’t count the number of times I’ve marveled at what may have inspired the brilliance behind some of his tracks, so hearing him talk about and even poke fun at himself was a surreal experience. Gibbard charmed and captivated the audience, taking time to thank and check in with everyone and crack jokes between playing cult classics like “Title and Registration,” which got a stripped down, acoustic treatment that somehow still contained just as much power as the mastered album release.
After playing a mix of his Postal Service, Death Cab, and solo material, Gibbard moved to the piano for “You Can Do Better Than Me” and even treated us to a new piano cover of Lou Reed’s “Pale Blue Eyes.” After the Velvet Underground throwback, Gibbard returned to his guitar and his own material. He dedicated “Teardrop Window” to Damien Jurado in respect to his rainy hometown of Seattle, Washington and thanked him for his opening performance, expressing his great respect for his friend and fellow musician.
Gibbard concluded his main set with “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” which struck a personal chord with me as it was the track that introduced me to the world of Ben Gibbard in 2003. The song was amazing to see performed live as he added extra vocal depths with a simple step back from the microphone, filling in the lines originally sung by Jenny Lewis.
Upon the conclusion of the song, Gibbard received a standing ovation from the audience, who remained standing and applauding until he returned for an encore with “A Lack of Color.” Gibbard was nothing if not a gracious host, even adding a impromptu song in respect to an audience member’s request to play an ¡All-Time Quarterback! track, “Cleveland,” and with an ultimate finale of “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” the set closed.
Leaving the venue, I found myself thinking “He didn’t play ‘Tiny Vessels’ or ‘Farmer Chords’,” and as I continued that spoiled thought path, I realized that it exemplifies how great some artists truly are. Over the course of Gibbard’s career, he’s produced so much great content that it can’t all fit into one set, and despite my unfounded complaints, the show was one of the best I’ve ever seen.
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