Exceeding All Expectations – Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service at MSG 9/20/23

In my just about 45 years on this planet, I have seen a lot of live music. It’s a passion of mine and one of the things that I really do make an effort in indulge in as much as is financially possible as it generally restores sanity to my overwhelming world. I don’t go to as many big shows these days as I would like to, but I blame that on pricing more than anything. It’s just hard to afford the big ones when things like groceries and utilities seem out of reach in bad months, and that is just the state we are in right now. I will say though that having curated this blog for over a decade has enabled me to squeak my way into a lot of fantastic live shows that have broadened my horizons and truly enriched my life. Music is life for me and is a thing that I need as much as oxygen, sunlight, and human contact. That being said, I just had a live music experience that I am pretty sure has changed me for life – and for me, that is saying a whole lot.

Back in 2012, I somehow got an invite to Death Cab for Cutie at the Brooklyn Museum for a filming of Live from the Artists Den. It was a visually, emotionally, and audibly stirring experience and more or less ruined me for live music for a while. Not much was going to ever live up to that experience for me. I was a fan of the band already, but that experience changed me and made me truly realize how engrossing live music could be, beyond the volume and the song. I have been to a lot of large and small venues to see a variety of music over the years and was not expecting this indie band to change me, but they did.

I already had an emotional attachment to this band. As I was going through trying times around 2007, I was doing a lot of healing to the DCFC album Transatlantacism while simultaneously doing the same to singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and generally swell guy Ben Gibbard’s other project, The Postal Service and their one and only album, Give Up. At the time, I was navigating a divorce and the insecure mourning that comes with it while working through severe depression and finding my way as a single mom working multiple jobs both day and night – and generally just trying to figure out who I was and what the hell I was doing through it all. It was a hard time that I look back on and still feel the pangs of guilt, pain, and anxiety to this day in my stomach. I leaned HARD into music then, and I still do. But at that time, this music was a healing place for me to fall into when I couldn’t stand on my own feet anymore. I was fumbling along in my life, making mistakes and bumping into things. I was dealing with health issues that would not be properly diagnosed for another 9 years (as multiple sclerosis). This music, these songs and their words and melodies, were a space for me to figure things out.

I did a lot of healing to this music. If you are into it, you understand why. The methods of songwriting used bring both meaningful words and emotionally tuned melodies together into something that gets inside you, farther than anything else seems to reach. It can light up some of the darkest corners of you and make you encounter those ghosts that you spend so much time hiding from when really, you should be sitting and chatting with them – and so you do. You do it through these melodies. You do it through these words. In the process, they become very dear to you and you find yourself deeply attached emotionally to these songs.

While this was happening, I was passing a lot of this love of songs onto my son. He was my sidekick in those days, always with me for my poorly executed singalongs and dance parties in the living room or in the car. I didn’t really realize it until he was much older and himself told me. Death Cab and The Postal Service were two sets of songs that we often came to discuss. In one of his music classes in high school, he was teaching himself the key parts to many of these songs and would send me text messages talking about them as he did. We would discuss the progressions and the themes of these albums, the way the songs blended into one another in their transitions. This is why when they announced the tour – these two projects playing these two albums in their entirety – I knew we had to go. My son’s birthday was conveniently close to the tickets going on sale, so I decided to buy them for him as a gift. I used my fandom to its maximum in that moment, having a pre-sale to a pre-sale code and being able to secure two tickets in the Sky Bridge of Madison Square Garden for us. It seemed so far away then, and the anticipation was maddening.

The night came this week.

Much had changed in nine months, as my son was now preparing to movie to Florida from our home in New Jersey to begin commercial flight school. He’s spent the last few years working his tail off with his (also pilot) dad getting his private license while making honor roll, getting a job, and still finding time to play music and skateboard. He’s an unusually amazing person. I know I am his mom, but trust me. This impending move has been a lot for me, as any parent with birds about to leave the nest knows. It doesn’t matter how much we know that it’s the best possible thing – it’s hard and we like them under our wings. It goes without saying that I needed this show to be awesome. This music being so important to the both of us, and it being just a couple weeks before he is to set off on his own adventure.

In the back of my mind was that Artists Den show 9 years ago. That was such an incredible experience with this music that I loved. What would this night be like? These songs are incredible, this band is fantastic, but this is Madison Square Garden. A place I saw my very first concert ever – Nine Inch Nails back in 1994. A place I watched incredible, life changing live shows like Rush, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, and Phish (twice), just to name a few. Artists with huge shows, huge songs, and huge followings that made sure you were fully engulfed in the music, the moment, and the experience with huge energy that permeated the entire massive arena.

Then it started.

Death Cab For Cutie came out wearing all black to the expected cheers of the crowd, a blending of people from numerous generations and age brackets. There wasn’t one type of people in the arena. It was a wonderful kaleidoscope of humans who have loved this music for however long and wanted to share in celebrating its 20 years. The moment the first sounds of their song “The New Year” started, the entire arena was awake, present, and ready to feel everything. Ben Gibbard’s voice began the words, “So this is the new year, and I don’t feel any different…” and everyone in the entirety of Madison Square Garden sang with him. We sang every single word, and we didn’t stop for the entire set.

As I said earlier, I have seen a lot of shows in 30 years. I have seen a lot of bands. Live music has been a massive part of my life so I am coming from a specific place when I say these things. Further, I have seen some of the biggest and well-loved bands with the most fanatical, long following fan bases. There are always songs people are singing along with, and there are folks in every crowd who know all the words to everything and make sure to sing along. That’s live music. It’s amazing and captures you with energy. But this – this was something else. This was thousands of people sharing the deep emotional connections they have to these two albums with one another and these artists the best way they know how – their voices. So we ALL sang. We sang loudly. We sang every single word. We were together an extra voice in tandem with those that came from the stage.

When it was time for the Postal Service to begin their set, they came out in all white and began with their song “The District Sleeps Tonight”. Again, as Ben began singing, “Smeared black ink…your palms are sweaty…I’m barely listening…” we all joined him, in unison, and we didn’t stop until the very last song from the album. We were dancing, singing, and breathless by the end – but the singing never stopped. Not for a moment. If there were voices coming from the stage, we were singing with them. It was audible over the microphones. Maybe to some people, it was an annoyance, but to people like me – it was the magic.

Obviously, I was not the only person who did a lot of healing to those two albums. They clearly mean a whole lot to a whole lot of people and we got the chance to celebrate that together. Our show was just one of many on this tour. I cannot imagine the situation to be any different in any other city, though we do like to show our folks a good time in New York City. We want you to know your music is our life, and I think we made that point. There was a moment that I looked from the stage to the seating at the right. That spot always catches a bit of the spotlight so those folks are easy to see. They were just a bustling, dancing batch of humans having the greatest night ever. If you were over there, I felt your vibe all the way up to the Sky Bridge!

Speaking of the Sky Bridge, I want to give quick props where they are due from an accessibility standpoint. I walk with a cane when I know I will be on my feet due to my MS making me a bit wobbly these days. The folks at MSG are STELLAR to folks like me and have made a very easy to navigate venue. Between the escalators, easily accessible elevators, ramps, and just overall layout, I had absolutely no difficulty having a fantastic night. The Garden is truly the greatest arena venue. I always buy Sky Bridge these days because they give me the ability to sit when I need to and still enjoy a great vantage point. I can see the stage no matter what. The seats I chose this particular evening allowed me the space to dance and still feel secure with the wall behind me and counter in front of me. I could easily stabilize myself with one hand. I have not been able to dance at a show in a long time due to this disease and that made this whole evening so much more magical for me. I felt like I got a part of me back that I had lost. At one point, during the Postal Service song “We Will Become Silhouettes”, Gibbard hopped behind the drums and the tempo picked up (as we all knew it would). As that anticipated moment hit and I felt myself lose myself in the music, I realized I had not been able to feel the freedom that comes with dancing to your favorite songs live in at least a year.

The emotion of that moment was overwhelming.

To top it all off, the encore was a gorgeous, acoustic rendition of Iron and Wine‘s version of The Postal Service song “Such Great Heights”, followed by what can easily be called the best cover of Depeche Mode‘s song “Enjoy The Silence” that I have ever heard. This is one of my very favorite songs, and a song I used to use as my ringback (remember those?) back when my son would be at his dad’s for a few days and would call me to say goodnight. For us, in our magical bubble, it was a full circle moment that hit me as hard as anything possibly could. I can’t explain to you how amazing that was. Not to mention, for all the many times I have heard this song covered by numerous artists, it was never done so faithfully and completely. There was not a single synthesized sound in that song that this band did not make sure was represented perfectly.

These two projects of music are made by incredible artists. It was such a wonderful privilege to see them enjoying the experience themselves with smiles and dancing. I was several times reminded of Bruce Springsteen and Courtney Cox in the “Dancing in the Dark” video as I watched Ben Gibbard and Jenny Lewis dancing together on stage – a warm and genuinely comforting sight to this born and raised Jersey girl. It made me smile. I smiled a LOT of Wednesday night, to the point that I remarked to my son on our drive home that my face hurt. That deep cheek cramping pain that comes from your face being frozen in a smile for a long time. That was the night for me. So while that night so many years back at the Brooklyn Museum ruined me for live music from then on and how beautiful and engrossing it could be, this show at Madison Square Garden solidified that for me. It reminded me with blaring signals that music is life. It heals, it enriches, and it brings thousands upon thousands of voices together in celebration of songs that found our souls in whatever state they were – and made them warmer.

Thank you.