Concert review: The Postal Service/Death Cab for Cutie | 05.07.24, Chaifetz Arena (with photo gallery)

Photo of Ben Gibbard by Bryan J. Sutter

w/ Slow Pulp

We’re at least a decade into the reign of the full-album concert, shows where a band cashes in on the nostalgia of lapsed fans by drawing them out to hear one of their favorite bands perform one of the albums of their youth in its entirety. It’s a great idea in theory, but it comes with its share of potential pitfalls—the lack of spontaneity or surprises, the replacement of beloved fan favorites from other albums with deep tracks that probably fell out of the live set for a reason—but when it’s an album you have an intense emotional connection to, there’s no denying it can be a magical experience.

If anyone is poised to succeed at the full-album concert game, it’s Ben Gibbard: in 2003, he released two all-time classic albums with two different bands—Transatlanticism, the commercial breakthrough for his main gig Death Cab for Cutie, and Give Up, a preciously perfect electronica side project with Jimmy Tamborello released under the name the Postal Service. If the packed, enthusiastic crowd at Chaifetz Arena is any indication, damn near every St. Louisan between the ages of 35 and 45 has a very, very, very intense emotional connection to these records. They fell in love to these records, they had their heart broken to these records, these records healed their hearts right on some days and tore out the sutures on others. The audience came to this show with their feelings ready to boil over, and even though this 20th anniversary tour had already stretched into its second year, Ben Gibbard and his cohorts gave back every bit of emotional energy to the crowd and then some.

Since the Postal Service only has one album while Death Cab’s discography runs ten deep, I had expected the former to play first and the latter to close with the Transatlanticism set followed by an encore of other favorite hits. Gibbard obviously knows better than I do and had Death Cab play first, and while it was weird to see a Death Cab show without “Soul Meets Body,” “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” or “I Will Possess Your Heart,” among many others, the reasons why this was the right move became readily apparent as the show went on.

Death Cab for Cutie took the stage all in black, ringing in the set with the clanging, anthemic album opener “The New Year.” Back when Transatlanticism first dropped, Death Cab shows were intimate affairs, Gibbard crooning out his lovelorn lyrics with his bangs down over his eyes. Those shy days are long gone—he’s now a confident frontman, his hair slicked back, a grin frequently crossing his face, the nervous swaying of yesteryear replaced with a dance of sorts, Gibbard rocking back and forth as if he might erupt at any moment, propelled by the powerful rhythm section of bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr. On “Title and Registration,” the song’s steady beat had Gibbard shifting on his heels like the ticking of the second hand on a clock. While Transatlanticism is a very textural album, on “Expo ‘86” and the sunny bop-bahs of “The Sound of Settling” Death Cab sounded like a real rock band, even flirting with full-on rock star guitar solos.

But “Tiny Vessels” marked a shift, a gentle song built on the heartbreaking hook “She was beautiful, but she didn’t mean a thing to me.” Then followed the epic, eight-minute title track, a slow-burning song with a long fuse. Gibbard opened the song without his guitar, concentrating on the emotional payoff in his vocals as the song builds to its big finale. As he beckoned “I need you so much closer,” the crowd fed every bit of the energy back at the stage through raised hands and a full-throated singalong. “Passenger Seat” followed, just Gibbard and a piano, even softer and sadder.

On album, “Death of an Interior Decorator” serves as a mid-tempo palate cleanser, but perhaps realizing the audience needs a pick-me-up at this point in the set, the live arrangement of the song was faster and more propulsive. Just to show how different expectations are for a Death Cab for Cutie show, the crowd picked this, the fast song, to make a run for the bar. How often does that happen? The band pushed the energy even harder with “We Looked Like Giants”—McGerr’s drums full-on thundered, while Harmer switched to guitar for an epic, distorted breakdown, while the song ended with a lengthy instrumental groove.

But the album’s insular mood returned for closer “A Lack of Color,” a song that solidified why Death Cab needed to play first, and it’s because of the full-album conceit: Transatlanticism doesn’t end with a bang, it ends with a whisper, its acoustic guitars so quiet that you can hear every word from the drunk idiot behind you. (Ask me how I know!) It was precious and well-played, but it’s not the kind of moment that leaves you exiting the venue floating on cloud nine, or even amped enough to clap and cheer for an encore. Fortunately, that moment was still forthcoming.

After a brief intermission, the Postal Service took the stage, Gibbard front and center while Tamborello manned a massive setup of synths and sequencers at the rear. The pair were flanked by Death Cab multi-instrumentalist Dave Depper and indie rock goddess Jenny Lewis, who sang backing vocals on several Give Up tracks and did the same here plus playing additional guitars and keyboards. The switch in sonic style from Death Cab to the Postal Service was driven home visually as well: where Death Cab wore all-black, the Postal Service wore all white. Where the first set was dimly lit, the latter was bright as day. Where the first set’s organic instrumentation was bathed in warm red spotlights, the latter emphasized its inherent electronic-ness with LEDs in cool blues and greens and purples.

And where Transatlanticism conjured up feelings of aching melancholy, Give Up inspired the crowd to dance the pain away. Opener “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” is a song whose lyrics (which describe the fragility of a long-distance relationship) are every bit as somber as anything on Transatlanticism but Tamborello’s blips and beeps meant the crowd was doing the exact opposite of wallowing in their misery. While the energy was already high, it positively boiled over with the aural love letter “Such Great Heights.” Another risky part of the full-album show format is when an album is front-loaded, and while a normal setlist would almost never slot in a band’s biggest hit as the second song, the Postal Service was able to capture that energy and carry it forward through the rest of their set.

“Such Great Heights” probably shares Most Beloved Postal Service Song honors with “Nothing Better,” an ingeniously constructed song that opens with a verse from Gibbard impassionedly trying to sing his way back into a relationship, only for the ex-girlfriend to remove the rose-colored glasses and stomp on his heart in the second verse—or, as Gibbard put it in his intro this night, “He said, she said…you guys be the judge.” While she had been onstage the entire time, “Nothing Better” was when it seemed to dawn on the crowd that, holy shit, that’s Jenny Lewis up there, their cheers for her shaking the walls and momentarily drowning out the band. Lewis was downright regal in her flowing white cape, her and Gibbard meeting face-to-face to islands-in-the-stream it up for the song’s back half. In a show packed with nostalgic moments, this one gave me literal goosebumps.

“Recycled Air” brought the volume down briefly but then went purposefully dissonant, with a gorgeous guitar solo that was the closest the Postal Service got to sounding like Death Cab for Cutie all night. Tamborello even hit the mic, repeating the song’s mantra-like refrain with his voice drenched in vocoder distortion as he brought it in for a landing.

Another personal favorite, “Clark Gable” is a small, intimate song on record turned massive, with Gibbard heading back to the corner of the stage to play McGerr’s drumkit for some extra muscle on the song’s outro. Gibbard’s drumming gave even more of a kick to “We Will Become Silhouettes”; Lewis danced around the stage in pure joy, the crowd pumping their fists to the song’s “ba-ba-ba-bummm” vocal hook as flashing green neon bars transformed the Chaifetz into a rave. The green shifted to bars of blue LEDs and cool purple stage lights for the more sedate “This Place Is a Prison,” the live drums again goosing the gentle piano figure and crashing waves of synths. Lewis played a deep, simple guitar solo that gave the song a mournful exclamation point.

Gibbard seemed truly touched by the ecstatic crowd reactions throughout the night, incredulously sharing that “It’s amazing to see how the songs we made have lived on in your hearts and minds.” McGerr returned to the stage for the final two songs of the main set, giving heft to the brittle video game beats of “Brand New Colony” and turning “Natural Anthem”—a song that I usually kind of forget it even exists, honestly—into something huge, even a little abrasive, and that outright demanded your attention.

Remember the conundrum I mentioned earlier about playing “the hit” too soon? The Postal Service countered that the easy way: by playing “Such Great Heights” a second time, albeit this time in a simple and sweet acoustic rendition—just Lewis, Gibbard, and an acoustic guitar, recreating the arrangement of Iron & Wine’s classic cover of the song. Then all of the members of both bands returned to the stage. “We’ll send this song out to anyone who used a dialup modem to download a song off Limewire,” Gibbard joked, and the combined DCfC/Postal Service juggernaut launched into an expertly chosen cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence.” That “exiting the venue floating on cloud nine” feeling I mentioned earlier? Achieved.

Opening the show was Chicago-based quartet Slow Pulp, a rising indie rock band led by singer-guitarist Emily Massey. The band’s eight-song set leaned heavily on their latest release, 2023’s sophomore album Yard, their breakthrough album and first for indie heavyweight record label Anti-. | Jason Green

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