Towards the end of this show - Ben Gibbard’s first in the UK a solo artist - one fan yells "this is the greatest night of my life". Gibbard’s reaction is coolly non-plussed, he later wonders aloud:"what could I do to make the the *worst* night of your life?"
This isn’t an epochal concert by any stretch, but the chap in row R’s comment reflects a real bind between Gibbard’s work and a chunk of Generation Y’ers. Said work includes seven albums with Death Cab For Cutie; one with the much-loved The Postal Service and now a long-in-the-works country-tinged solo album which covers “three relationships”. We can presume that includes his recent divorce from actress Zooey Deschanel.
He opens with “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby” the short intro to his new record, Former Lives. It’s “Her Majesty”-length at 50 seconds but, taking in as it does the glum British weather, it’s an appropriate offering to the bescarved hordes inside London’s most musical church (“thanks for coming to this dump,” he jokes, admiring the Union Chapel’s lanky beauty).
The set-up, as the hushed venue dictates, is simple. It’s just Gibbard, his acoustic guitar and his curvaceous singing voice, which bends and aches over vowel sounds like an artificial limb. Without the trouble of co-ordinating an entire band, the Washingtonian is able to rip through 26 songs in just over 90-minutes.
Very early on comes his finest moment as a lyricist – The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” which is done in the ambling style of Iron and Wine’s cover. Making it a cover of a cover of a side project as played by the original artist.
There’s enough Death Cab for fans of the not-quite-arena-rockers to be satisfied too. This includes minor hits such as “Cath…”, “Sound of Settling” and “Title and Registration”, all of which are received with decidedly non-congregational whoops. It’s all – if you’re a fan of his work – very endearing hearing them in this stripped context and Gibbard’s voice, an odd, coldly-emotional creation is frequently captivating. Without accompaniment though, there’s often little else to focus on. A situation which at times grapples with some listeners’ concentration.
Of course, that super-stripped setting is part of the point of nights likes these. And the guitar-and-vocals repetition is eventually broken by five numbers at the piano followed by a cover of Blur’s endearing lullaby “Sweet Song” and Former Lives’ “Teardrop Windows” which is frankly the saddest song you’ll ever hear about a skyscraper’s height envy.
Like his music, Gibbard is chatty, endearing and funny – making for a warm evening. Though not *quite* the best of my life, sadly.