By Erin Coulehan, Contributor, DC Music Live
The dome of the Sixth & I Street Synagogue was aglow on the night of Thursday, November 8 as Ben Gibbard took the stage to play a set on his first solo tour. Most recognized for his work in Death Cab for Cutie and electronic side project, The Postal Service, Gibbard has made a name for himself through his sincere and poetic depictions of the human condition and intimate instrumentation on the piano and guitar.
Former Lives, Gibbard’s first solo record, has been under fire by critics, who perhaps due to lack of understanding regarding the construction of the album – or lack of kind words – have harshly reviewed the album which is made up of songs written prior to the release of monumental albums like 2008’s Transatlanticism. Former Lives provides snapshots of insight into the former life and experience of the musician, and it’s important to recognize Gibbard’s evolution as an artist; Shakespeare is heralded for the later tragedies of Hamlet and Macbeth, not early comedies like The Comedy of Errors, and it’s only fair that Gibbard’s work be studied with a similar understanding of chronological accomplishments.
On stage wearing a flannel shirt and denim that have now become his signature getup, Gibbard greeted the crowd warmly and delivered an hour-long set that was divided between playing the guitar and the piano as he sang fan-favorites like “Passenger Seat” and “Soul Meets Body” while the audience followed along with monk-like chants.
The set would have been incomplete without Gibbard’s biting observations in songs like “Williamine” as he describes a woman who “Makes men sigh and women wonder / Where is all the beauty coming from?” before proclaiming, “Nobody ever dares to write the true story of love / The secret underground truth of desire.”
That secret underground of desire was examined in “Cath” as Gibbard played the acoustic guitar on stage and described a scene in which the song’s subject stands uncomfortably staged for wedding photos, her well-intentioned man by her side with his hand placed affectionately, albeit possessively, on the small of her back. And yet, we’re not meant to pity the character of Cath: “you said your vows, and you closed the door / On so many men would have loved you more,” reveal the lyrics as she proudly walks down the aisle as guests judge and question her motives and desire.
The set’s final song before the encore was appropriately “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” a song from The Postal Service that is Gibbard’s meditations on a former lover moving on from him, and an ode to DC itself in a way.
After receiving a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd, Gibbard returned to the stage for a four-song encore that seamlessly connected the rest of the night’s set list that had at one point been separated by time and life experience with “Title Track.”
Drunk off the emotion and soothing guitar, the audience swayed to the song’s lyrics: “I tried my best to keep my distance from your dress / But call-response overturns convictions every time.” That distance, that vulnerability, with which Gibbard performed interwove the themes of both the performance and the Former Lives album: an intimate experience delicate as lace, with just enough exposure.