I dream of this kind of concert bill: one that brings together artists who've never before been mentioned in the same breath--say, Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard--and that won't likely be duplicated any time soon. Novelty factor aside, there's another advantage to seeing a major musician's side projects: It'll up your insufferable superfan cred in no time flat. Take it from me!
Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard, Bimbo's 365 Club, October 24, 2009: Aside from some prominent exceptions, I try to go to shows with a blank slate, shut off from whatever gossip, PR spin, or blogger chatter might be circulating. But even by those standards, I approached this gig with nary an agenda. I hadn't heard a note of Jay and Ben's collaboration, I had no idea of what format the show would take, I couldn't guess as to whether they'd do any of their own material, and I hadn't a clue whether they'd be joined by supporting players.
Truth be told, it wasn't so difficult to maintain radio silence, considering I'm hardly a devoted Son Volt or Death Cab for Cutie fan. Don't get me wrong--I like both of them fine, and I've seen Jay and Ben (separately) in concert before, in sort of one-off appearances. However, I'm much more familiar with the people they've worked with and played beside, rather than with their main gigs. Furthermore, I've never read Jack Kerouac (admits the English major).
I don't recommend that everyone adopt this willful ignorance, but believe it or not, it keeps me sane. Besides, most of those questions were answered soon enough. Joining Jay and Ben were Mark Spencer on pedal steel, guitar, and keyboards; Jon Wurster on drums; and Nick Harmer on bass. Though I didn't keep track of vocal turns, Jay and Ben seemed about even in their share of mic time, and each took to the piano once or twice. As it turned out, they did stick to the Jack Kerouac-inspired material, so the kids in line hoping for Death Cab or Postal Service songs were out of luck. Full disclosure: My half-joking wish for "Tear-Stained Eye" didn't pan out either.
Preferences aside, there was some question in my mind about which group of fans would be more likely to stage an uprising and demand their money back before the end of the night: Son Volt followers, so often set in their musical ways, or the Death Cab for Cutie tribe, especially those who caught on after the group went mainstream. Of course, fans of splinter groups are always self-selecting; almost by definition, your interest exceeds that of the average listener. Still, my guess is it was more of a stretch for Death Cab fans, particularly with the twangier tunes. To their credit, the pitchforks and torches were kept in check, no matter who was singing.
I extend my kudos to Ben Gibbard as well. This marks the second time I've watched Ben apart from his primary band, and he's won me over on both occasions. Back in October 2007, I got to see him in a rare, unadorned light, but at Bimbo's, he took the opposite tack with a rootsier, more rocking sound. Clearly, Ben is willing to step outside of his comfort zone, to impressive effect.
Ben and Jay showed nothing but respect and consideration for each other, but if I had to choose, I'd say Jay emerged as the leader of the group. For example, Jay split the lead guitar duties with Mark Spencer, and more prominently, the rest of the band ceded the stage to Jay and Mark for two songs. In terms of the music, the project aligns more closely with the sound that Jay's known for than what we'd previously heard from Ben.
Ultimately, Jay's voice sounded amazing (as usual), his gratifyingly world-weary tone complementing the subject matter--especially those images of empty spaces and indifferent towns--beautifully. Moreover, Jay looked like he was having fun, peeking out of his notoriously closed shell more than you might expect. There was, for example, the matter of his capo flying off the guitar after the band's first song and incidentally landing directly in front of us. He accepted its return with a wide grin, an expression he wore for much of the night.
Jay revealed they'd been a group for all of a week, and he had plenty of kind words for San Francisco in general. I have only one other show to compare it to, so I'll leave it to longtime Jay watchers to confirm or deny whether this is typical behavior on his part. But it sure makes me want to hit Son Volt's show at the Fillmore in December.
As of this writing, the tour is done, and it's anyone's guess as to whether Jay and Ben will reconvene for more shows. Thus, you can disregard this small aside to a night of overall cool tunes, but I'll lodge the observation anyway: For all their cooperation and deference to one another, I didn't get the feeling that Jay and Ben were a band, as opposed to a couple of guys who happened to work together. It's a minor issue, and I'd love to stand corrected, but that was the view from stage right.
John Roderick of the Long Winters opened the show. I'd seen his band once before, many moons ago; if I'm not mistaken, they played with the Decemberists at the Great American Music Hall. I'm happy to report that his goofy energy remained intact, as evidenced by the pitcher of hot water he brought onstage. It was soon enriched with a shot of Theraflu provided by an audience member whom I like to think was a well-stocked fan and not merely a plant. Regardless, his work here was done, and the medication allowed John to try out a bunch of songs, including a tune about not moving to Portland.
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