Live Review: The Postal Service @ Key Arena 7/18/13

all photos by Dave Lichterman

In recent years, few one-off side projects have led to the mass following and devotion that The Postal Service has mustered. Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard first teamed up with DNTEL mastermind Jimmy Tamborello back in 2001 for “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan”, from Jimmy’s indie electronic masterpiece Life Is Full of Possibilities. Apparently, the two got along. Tamborello smoothed out the experimental outliers of DNTEL to create 10 wonderfully new wave dance pop beats to which Ben added the melodious longing and melancholy he’d almost perfected on Death Cab’s The Photo Album and The Stability EP. Together with the beautifully balanced backing vocals of Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, some guitar help from Death Cab’s Chris Walla, and two guest spots from Seattle singer and songwriter Jen Wood, Give Up was born. Since its generally favorable release in 2003, Give Up has become a thing of legend. Now, it is actually the second Sub Pop record ever to go platinum. The album’s delicate balance of indie pop and fragile dance music put it in a league of its own.

In ten years, the record has lost very little of its appeal. The Postal Service’s members have gone about their lives, each putting out a number of records through their bands, solo projects, and other other bands. But in all that time, Give Up has always remained a quiet favorite among its many fans. This year, with its ten year anniversary, Sub Pop has released an anniversary edition of the record with two new songs (originally written for the scrapped follow up to Give Up from 2007) and all of the B-sides and remixes and covers any fan could ever want. With the rerelease came the announcement fans had all been waiting for: a reunion tour around the globe celebrating the incredible impact the record has had. Jimmy, Ben, and Jenny were joined by Laura Burhenn of The Mynabirds to sing these beloved songs once more. So here we have it: The Postal Service 2013 come to Seattle.

A Postal Service reunion... Seems like the easiest gig in the world, right? Go play a 16 song set of solid gold that every single person in Key Arena will scream their head off for like clockwork. Well thankfully, the Postal Service gang aren’t just in it for the money, and with this short reprieve from each of their (typically) more somber core projects, they get to play with a handful of stellar musicians and have a blast doing it.

As the lead man, Ben Gibbard was a joy. When he wasn’t dancing around the stage with all of the reckless abandon you could hope for, he was ripping out all of the classic guitar lines and then throwing his guitar down quickly to jump behind a drum set and sing and play some more. For a guy who’s probably sung “Such Great Heights” tens of thousands of times at this point, he sure didn’t seem sick it. And even if he was, he did a great fan service by hiding it. These songs hold a dear place in many young hearts in both young and old bodies, and whether or not the band continue to resonate with them, I think they understand their impact just as much as the day they wrote them.

At stage right was the wonderful and captivating Jenny Lewis, who alternated between guitar and synthesizer, while intermittently adding the soft backing vocal touch that fills out every one of Give Up’s tracks with divine grace. Later, she jumped on the drum set to play Beat Happening classic “Our Secret”. Lewis may be soft spoken (and thus, to some default extent, humble), but she is a goddess on the guitar. Her juxtapositions with Gibbard on a couple of the more harmonious tunes like “Recycled Air” and “There’s Never Enough Time” were gorgeous, and for the noisy bombast of “Natural Anthem”, she played with her teeth. Her teeth. Mind you, this is at the last time as Ben Gibbard destroying his drum set and then throwing his guitar into the clutter and hopping off stage before the noise has faded out. It’s at points like that where you know you are in the presence of kings and queens.

The stoic silence that was Jimmy Tamborello was only broken once, on his simple but effective vocals for the “Sleeping In” chorus. Here, as photographers all pushed for their one chance to catch him at the microphone and fans quietly sung along, still a bit taken by the stage’s excellent design and light setup, Jimmy just sang quietly and beautifully with a huge smile on his face. As the source of interactive energy for the band, Ben and Jenny tend to get most of the credit, but without the bearded genius in the back, none of this would be possible. Tamborello’s masterful mix of melody, glitch, and dance has created an emotionally captivating electronic experience unlike any other, and though he wouldn’t admit it to your face, I think he knows it. With a quiet smile and an attentive gaze at the tangled wiring and collection of buttons and triggers and keys at his fingertips, Jimmy Tamborello has led the Postal Service from a bedroom laptop project to an arena-filling monster. For fans, it was just fun to see him grin at his bleeps and bloops turn into a soundscape of genius with the help of a massive sound-system.

The Seattle show had some pretty spectacular surprises unto itself. Along with Ben’s numerous Seattle toss-outs (name-dropping his home town of Bremerton and the fact that Beat Happening is from Olympia, to name a few), he announced that a special guest was present for the evening: none other that Jen Wood, who recorded some of the vocals on the original album! For “Nothing Better”, Gibbard and Wood danced back and forth with a very cinematic love story duet that seriously couldn’t have been any more perfect. Later, Wood returned for the sparkling brilliance of “Such Great Heights” and danced around the stage while Ben jumped down into the photo pit to sing along with delirious fans along the railing.

As the Postal Service returned to the stage for an encore, there was a wonderful moment of clarity and completeness. “Thanks for coming and listening to us play these ten year old songs”, Gibbard laughed as he strapped on his guitar and began a bright finger-picking riff. “Ringing, ringing, ringing” he began to sing, gazing across the crowds, all silent in anticipation. Behind him, Jimmy grins ear to ear as he sets up the track. It’s “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan” - the genesis of the entire Postal Service project. Finally, the beat breaks and it’s a bass-heavy, glitchy party in Key Arena as “we sang every song from [2003]” like no time had passed at all. Then not letting the beat skip once, Jimmy drops the intro to “Brand New Colony” and the place goes livid. The track is easily the emotional and spiritual highlight of Give Up. It’s the moment of perfect love, where the singer just wants to be all that a friend in need needs him to be. It’s the song that brought us all up out of a pool of tears years ago, and it’s the song that even now some of us go to on dark days where we just want to love and be loved. As the band closes, Gibbard keeps the crowd singing until the last held synth note fades into the distance. “EVERYTHING WILL CHANGE” the crowd sings over and over again with an unfaltering focus and honesty. But as a second or two of silence gives the night closure and the crowd erupts once more as the band exits stage right, we all know that one thing will never change. We love the Postal Service and we always will. Thanks to Laura for helping make the reunion tour possible, and thanks to Jen Wood for taking the time to make a special appearance tonight. But most of all, thank you to Ben, Jimmy, and Jenny for all the memories.

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