As the full moon rose high above the Open Air Theatre on Sunday night, hundreds of The Postal Service fans sat staring at three very large and constantly bouncing backsides.
These big-ass booties belonged to the “dancers” of the opening act Big Freedia and, judging by the confused faces in the audience, most of the “exceedingly white” attendees had never seen anything quite like it before. Big Freedia’s set consisted of a formidably effeminate frontman barking out militaristic vocals over pre-recorded music, a DJ doing whatever DJ’s do, and of course the three healthy women whose sole purpose was to shake what sweet Jebus gave them in varying positions the whole damn time. It was a spectacle for sure, but beyond that the group’s set didn’t manage to be much else. Hats off to the ladies and all the energy they put into the dancing, but even for someone who likes a healthy booty, that was just too much ass.
When the dust cleared from Big Freedia’s set and The Postal Service walked onto the stage, the nearly sold-out Open Air Theatre broke into very enthusiastic applause. For many in attendance, this show was something very special: a reunion of a band that was never really a band to begin with, but who still managed to create an album that has become a bookmark in many people’s lives of a simpler time. The album they created was called Give Up. The songs on it were imbued with an electronic backbone that balanced nicely with the very human, endearing vocals of two of indie rock’s sweetest vocalists: Ben Gibbard and Jenny Lewis. Filled with synths and drum machines, Give Up used technology to its advantage, lending the songs a fresh and downright cute quality that seems sweeter and sweeter as time goes by.
And gone by it has.
The Postal Service played their very first show as a band right here in San Diego 10 years ago at the Casbah. And as half of the audience broke out their cell phones to start recording/watching the show through a screen, it made me wonder how many of these people would have done the same thing in 2003. This public display of an allegiance to a device that transforms the real world into something manufactured and flat never ceases to unnerve me, but it felt especially off-putting in contrast to the nostalgic sounds of 2003 that emanated from the stage.
As soon as the music kicked in and Gibbard began to sing the first lines to the album opener “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” the distracting sea of screens gave way to the magic happening on stage. Large metal pillars that looked like the pipes of a church organ backlit by LCD screens made for a mesmerizing backdrop to the musicians on stage. And the enchanting and talented Jenny Lewis was right in the middle of it all, serving as a lovely centerpiece to the onstage spectacle. Hearing her complete The Postal Service’s sound as she began to sing the line “where I am” with her pretty songbird vocals was a really good feeling, and those of us not holding up a screen broke into applause to show our appreciation.
Each band member stood behind waist high-black boxes that concealed various technical gadgets they used to punctuate the music. It wasn’t all electronic, though — during different songs, Ben and/or Jenny would pick up a guitar and play. There was even a drum set that they got a fair amount of use from Gibbard. The live instruments made for a nice contrast to all of the computer-generated sounds coming from the speakers.
For the most part, The Postal Service played the songs close to the way they sounded in their recorded versions, but with a few deviations here and there. When Ben jumped on the drum set to give the songs an added touch, the audience ate it up with enthusiastic applause. But just like on the album, the really special moments came when the two vocalists sang back and forth to each other. There’s no better example of this dynamic than on the aptly-titled “Nothing Better.” Hearing them perform it live was nice enough, but seeing them interact physically onstage during the song made it that much better. Their little routine, as subtle as it was, infused the song with more substance than it had on the album.
A break in the synthpop sounds came in the form of the brooding “This Place is a Prison.” Sounding like metal gears grinding together in a cold and murky swampland, this track has always stood out as something deeper and darker than any of the band’s other songs. The track is reminiscent of Ben Gibbard’s early work on the first few Death Cab albums, and hearing it live with a demonic red light cast over the entire stage was downright spooky. Toward the end of the song, Gibbard got behind the drum set and ended it with some primal emotion.
The Postal Service ended the night with the strong “Brand New Colony,” a song about starting fresh with someone you love. They ended the song urging the crowd to sing along to its last lyrics: “Everything will change.” As I sang along, I had one of those special concert moments where each repetition of the lyric felt like an incantation of sorts. It was an optimistic reminder that, even though some changes can seem off-putting (like society’s ever-increasing need to view reality through a technological filter), there are still plenty of changes on the horizon to look forward to, and none more so than starting something new with someone you love.