Ben Gibbard was at the height of his powers in 2003, delivering the two records his entire output is measured against: Death Cab for Cutie’s fourth album, “Transatlanticism,” and the Postal Service’s sole LP, “Give Up.” Although Gibbard is the frontman for both groups, the bands’ sounds are miles apart.
DCFC started as a modest Washington-based rock outfit with a sound that developed from Built to Spill-esque indie to more sweeping, experimental studio rock, with the yearning long-distance relationship lyrics of “Transatlanticism” perfectly matching the sweeping guitars and tasteful drumming. Meanwhile, the Postal Service was a collaboration between Gibbard and electronic artist Dntel, aka Brian Tamborello, with background vocals courtesy of Jenny Lewis. With hushed bedroom pop laid over gentle digital soundscapes, “Give Up” captured new fans for Gibbard’s confessional lyrics.
Given that both records were celebrated as headphone-ready breakup balms, it was a bit jarring when the bands announced a joint anniversary tour anchored by two nights at Madison Square Garden. Yet even if Gibbard’s songwriting feels comfortable in hushed, quiet moments, the size of the fan base proved to be anything but modest.
Dressed all in black, Death Cab started the evening Tuesday, and from the massive first chords of opener “The New Year,” it was clear Gibbard was having the time of his life presenting the records in full. Throughout the night, the singer was bopping around onstage, dancing so aggressively to the music that his head would bob strategically to sing into the microphone. The energy extended to the rest of the band, as the indelible anthems sounded bigger and bolder thanks to their enthusiastic stomp. Although the setlist was foretold, there were plenty of small touches that elevated performances beyond the recording, from Gibbard experimenting with subtle vocal flourishes to the band enriching the droning, ambient sound that links all of the songs together. Highlights included the power-ballad title track, which slowly built waves of guitars over the signature guitar hook; the bouncy heartbreak pop of “The Sound of Settling”; and fingerpicked acoustic closer “A Lack of Color,” which prompted a tear-streaked singalong.
After a 15-minute set break, Gibbard and the Postal Service bounded out in all-white outfits to even more fanfare than DCFC. The crowd at the Garden was ready to dance after the emotional exorcism of the previous set and opener “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” was met with a roar. The trio of Gibbard, Tamborello and Lewis was joined by Death Cab multi-instrumentalist Dave Depper, and their sound was more arena-ready than presented on the album. While singles “Such Great Heights” and “We Will Become Silhouettes” got the biggest reaction, the group added heft to B-sides like “This Place Is a Prison” and “Brand New Colony” by amping up the electronic beats and allowing Gibbard to hop on a live drum set to kick things up. The band’s secret weapon was Lewis’ laid-back presence, unleashing cool harmonies as the perfect juxtaposition of the oft-frantic music.
For a night of preaching to the converted, it was a treat to see both bands so committed to fans reliving their favorite records. While so many anniversary tours feel like paint-by-the-numbers affairs, Gibbard’s boundless enthusiasm and thoughtful takes on his past was a refreshing case of an artist trying to deliver joy and happiness — even if the songs themselves are so, so sad.