How do you translate a generation-defining, deeply personal if not outright bedroom record to an arena-ready show?
Up the bleeps, bloops, beats, and overall volume, for starters. Such was the case Wednesday night, when Ben Gibbard, Jimmy Tamborello and Jenny Lewis—aka the Postal Service—made their intimate 2003 Sub Pop classic Give Up a pretty, pulsing, emo dance party for the millennials assembled at the Rose Garden.
“This is a band from no fixed address,” Gibbard mentioned halfway through the barely hour-long set, a nod to how the record came together a decade ago, when Gibbard and Tamborello exchanged sounds via burned CDs sent via snail mail. The Death Cab for Cutie frontman and Dntel mastermind enlisted Rilo Kiley’s Lewis for backing vocals. The result was an early aughts one-off, an indie supergroup whose melodic sensibility and electro canvas seem entirely current in the era of M83, Passion Pit, et al.
Credit Tamborello’s production—at once a thick but delicate onslaught of loops, drums and bass—for nutting up Gibbard’s at times painstakingly precious lyrics (“Clark Gable,” anyone?), the laptop anima to Gibbard’s unadorned voice and heart-on-sleeve M.O. “Bleep, blip, it’s James Tamborello,” Gibbard quipped in introduction, his collaborator perched behind an arsenal of machines. The percussive, ambient wall of sound on record was only fortified live, and the relatively packed house cheered when Tamborello lent his voice to “Sleeping In.”
Gibbard and co., with lovely support on vocals and percussion from Mynabirds’ Laura Burhenn, dutifully checked off Give Up’s tracks—all 45 minutes of them. He and Lewis of an easy onstage rapport, as on “Nothing Better.” Frequently changing instruments and on occasion two-stepping with Lewis, Gibbard was in particularly animated form, hopping from mic-only to guitar to drums—a welcome addition to all those synths— to just plain hopping about, all earnest arms, claps and hand gestures (“Turn Around”).
Gibbard kept the between-song banter minimal but warm, name-checking the Trailblazers while warning of a guy from Oklahoma City stealing the ball team a la his native Seattle SuperSonics (which, curiously, lead into “This is a Prison”). In broaching the night’s one cover tune, “Our Secret,” Gibbard called Olympia, Wash.’s Beat Happening “the greatest band ever.” Though not a departure from the set list the Postal Service has followed religiously throughout this tour, their treatment, with its jangly power-pop and three-part harmonies, proved a highlight.
So too was new single “A Tattered Line of String” (off Give Up’s 10th anniversary two-disc re-release), Lewis’ angelic voice soaring in dreamy reverb, and the aggressively industrial intro to “Natural Anthem,” in which Tamborello’s atmospherics seemed to power a towering light show of color and shape to its propulsive climax.
From the swoony opening strains of “The District Sleeps Tonight” to encore standards “(This is) The Dream of Evan and Chan” and the twee “Brand New Colony,” the band delivered on the nostalgia of fans who’ve had but one Postal Service album to obsess over while coming of age (or simply aging). The surprise was just how loud, grand and epic it played in a large venue.
The evening’s other surprise/head-scratching moment was show-stealing opener Big Freedia, to whom Gibbard dedicated “Such Great Heights.” “Who loves Big Freedia? We love Big Freedia!” he said of the “honor” of having the New Orleans bounce queen on the bill. A truly WTF?! bill, at that, especially given the band’s special guests on other dates this tour: YACHT, Mates of State and Ra Ra Riot.
Freedia is no stranger to Portland fans, having wowed MFNW audiences three years ago and returning annually since. But Wednesday’s show marked the biggest local venue yet for the performer, who’s used to playing spaces more conducive to twerking en masse like Holocene and, come Friday night, the Wonder Ballroom.
From the looks of it, Wednesday’s show also marked the biggest local audience of folks unfamiliar with the bounce pioneer, or perhaps just more ready to sway back and forth wistfully than bend over and “wobble, wobble, wobble.” Freedia took an amused/confused crowd through some 40 minutes of thunderous bass, the iconic bounce beat and “azz everywhere, dropping.”
Flanked by three bootylicious—an inadequate word if ever there were one—dancers and a DJ, the statuesque Freedia, sporting hot pink pants and a blue Mohawk, rallied the crowd with call-and-response (“Excuse [I Don’t Mean to be Rude]”), a Bill Haley sample and general flailing and gesticulating. “Y’all gonna say, ‘Somebody gonna be my victim,’” Freedia commanded the crowd at the start of “Gin In My System.” They did as told, even if it seemed some didn’t know quite was going on, before Freedia continued on the bizarrely out-of-context tip, hyping the “motherfucking Postal Service!”
All photos by Wayne Bund