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Ben Gibbard @ Danforth Music Hall

. : : October 14th, 2012 : : .

I’ve written here before about how I was a huge Death Cab For Cutie fan throughout University. For the first three years, when people asked my favourite bands, I always listened them first, which never failed to incite a confused wrinkling of the brow. In the fourth year, however, once The OC started to draw attention to the band, you suddenly started seeing vandals scrawling lyrics on the inside of bus shelters; and by the time Plans hit the radio waves, they were unavoidable in mainstream pop culture.

I’m of the opinion their oeuvre made a sudden and steep decline once signing to Atlantic Records and selling a gazillion records. I’m not attempting to be elitist — it’s hard to argue the band that was once signed to the little Seattle indie rock label that could, Barsuk Records, was even remotely similar to the band it eventually became once signed to a major.

I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t excite me like their first four LPs and countless EPs did.

When frontman Ben Gibbard announced a solo tour, University-era Me stepped through time and demanded I get tickets. After all, didn’t I love those recordings of extremely rare Gibbard solo shows played around Seattle in which he mixed stripped down Death Cab For Cutie songs with fun, inventive and unexpected covers, such as Avril Lavigne‘s Complicated and Michael Jackson‘s Thriller? Didn’t I wish I could have been at one of just such shows for years on end? I couldn’t let the opportunity pass me by.

The tour wasn’t just for fun, however. Gibbard’s first proper solo album (at least without a pseudonym), Former Lives, was the catalyst for the tour. But Toronto would be the first real stop; a preview show some two weeks before the remainder of the US tour would begin. So, without reviews and setlist rumours, I would have to base my decision to go solely on the value of nostalgia and hope.

Oh, and proximity. He was playing at the Danforth Music Hall — a small concert theatre only a handful of blocks (a few subway stations, really) down the street from my house.

I’d never been the the Danforth Music Hall, but the my immediate (and lasting) impression was that its sound was great (if a bit heavy on natural reverb) and it was surprisingly intimate a choice of a venue for someone who was headlining festivals with ten times the capacity only months earlier.

Gibbard opened the show as he does the album, with the short, whimsical a capella tune Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby, and then immediately delves into one of the biggest hits of his career — Such Great Heights, a heavily stripped down, acoustic version of the famous electronic pop collaboration with DNTEL known as The Postal Service. It was undoubtedly pandering to the audience to break into a such a big hit so early, but undoubtedly necessary to reel in a group of people almost all together unfamiliar with the bulk of the night’s song selections.

Wisely, he went back to the well frequently, bringing back Death Cab For Cutie cuts (largely culled from Transatlanticism such as Title and RegistrationPassenger Seat, and A Lack Of Colour) to break up the sets of new songs into smaller two-to-four song sections. This definitely made the new material more palatable, but also emphasized the stark quality difference between the songs released through his established bands and this solo material, admittedly coined as a collection of his favourite songs that didn’t make the cut for previous collaborative efforts.

It’s not a perspective that’s uniquely mine, either. Even one of Canada’s most revered newspapers was there, and noted “The generous hit parade couldn’t help but take a bit of lustre off [songs from] Former Lives.”

Credit where credit is due; it can’t be easy to debut an album’s worth of unheard material without a stage full of friends to hide behind, and Gibbard tried to enhance the casual nature of the performance with friendly banter sprinkled throughout the set. Boldly put, some parts of the set worked better than others. Some new material stood up amongst the old material giants better than others. The only quirky cover was a pretty decent and well-received take on The Tragically Hip‘s My Music At Work — and that’s coming from a non-Hip fan.

All-in-all, the show was a mixed bag effort from the indie rock giant, burdened by the necessity of promoting an album not yet available to consumers composed of songs not quite good enough for mainstream release; but the highlights of the night were exceptional, and undoubtedly worth the price of admission.

The recording sounds good, but the relative low volume of both the performance and the theatre provided some troubles. The loud, screaching banshee wails of female fans and enthusiastic applause by those too polite or suffering from weaker vocal chords meant that heavy handed compression had to be used to bring these collective bursts down to a level that is much less liklier to deafen the listener, while making the music itself loud and clear. There are occasional microphone pops, but the majority of the distortion came from the stage and not the recording.

Otherwise, fans of Gibbard will likely be interested in hearing this tape.

Or, at least, the tracks taken from his works with Death Cab For Cutie and The Postal Service.

01. Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby
02. Such Great Heights
03. [banter]
04. St. Peter’s Cathedral
05. Oh, Woe
06. Willamine
07. [banter]
08. Title and Registration
09. Dream Song
10. When The Sun Goes Down On Your Street
11. [banter]
12. Grapevine Fires
13. Lady Adelaide
14. [banter]
15. Passenger Seat
16. Duncan, Where Have You Gone?
17. Unobsructed Views
18. Soul Meets Body
19. [banter]
20. Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)
21. [banter]
22. My Music At Work [Tragically Hip]
23. Teardrop Windows [abandoned]
24. Teardrop Windows
25. The District Sleeps Alone Tonight
26. You Remind Me of Home
27. [encore]
28. [banter]
29. A Lack of Color
30. [banter]
31. I’m Building A Fire
32. I Will Follow You Into The Dark

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Willamine (Live In Toronto) [MP3 sample]


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