Live Review: A Broken-Handed Ben Gibbard, Mark Kozelek, and Zach Rogue Open the Swedish American Hall With a Bang

Ben Gibbard
Zach Rogue
Monday, Feb. 23, 2015
The Swedish American Hall

This was it. The newly renovated Swedish American Hall’s maiden voyage. Sure, there were film events there over the past few days, but this was different. This was a concert, and not just any concert, it was Noise Pop inaugurating their new venue and this year’s festival with Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard headlining the bill. You could feel the crowd’s exuberance coming into the night, with the smell of fresh paint still lingering in the brand new ballroom and lights strewn across the partially seated floor setting the mood.

[jump] Rogue Wave frontman Zach Rogue started the intimate evening off with a slew of new songs. The stage lighting was perfect and the setting was downright intimate. No pushing and shoving, no maneuvering, everyone was comfortably happy as the venue made about as good of a first impression as it could’ve hoped for. There were no announcements before the show, just right into the music.   Rogue was his usual charming self, starting his set on the guitar and then moving to a retro harmonium. Rogue Wave’s Pat Spurgeon joined on stage for the latter half of the set as the two churned through new songs and classics as well. Rogue brought up his daughter up (I presume?) to sit next to him and clap along for the last two songs and delighted the crowd by closing with the classic “Lake Michigan.” But Rogue’s tight renditions would only set the stage for Ben Gibbard and his very special guest.

The crowd held their collective breath when Gibbard walked up with a cast over his right hand. He explained that he had broken his hand and was lucky enough to have Death Cabber Zac Rae on the grand piano and his close friend, Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon, on guitar. Kozelek is a marvelous guitar player who calls the Bay Area home and has a well-documented friendship with Gibbard. So despite his appearance making sense when considering Gibbard’s injury, it was still nothing short of a treat for the crowd. Let’s not beat around the bush here, Kozelek is a big draw and if anything could add to the already high level of excitement for Gibbard festival opening set, this was it. 
Not long into the set, Gibbard and company broke into Death Cab For Cutie’s “Your Heart Is An Empty Room” and it made us feel like there were more surprises to come in the set. Gibbard took numerous breaks to talk to the crowd, at one point telling us that “Seattle is being overrun by techies and we're starting to neglect what makes it so great.” Scattered hecklers chided the anecdote in a show of San Francisco solidarity, cause let’s face it, nobody feels that pain more than S.F.

With the grand piano to the left and Kozelek, head down to Gibbard’s right, all of the public e-mail exchanges between the two seemed to finally be at work and we were there to witness their beautiful music. “His fucking voice!” a friend whispered to me in bliss. Even the songs from the Codes & Keys album were resonating (shade, I know).
The moments when Gibbard addressed the crowd were all jokes and smiles: “The first time we played Noise Pop was in 1999 at Great American Music Hall, and it was streaming on the internet. I called my Dad on a payphone to see if he saw us on the internet.” We laughed and he even clowned the usually stone-faced Kozelek for taking too much time to tune his guitar in between songs, but let him off the hook eventually: “I’ve known these songs for years and he just learned them in the last 12 hours.” The crowd roared in appreciation for Kozelek’s feat and Ben let it all out thereafter: “I gotta geek out, I can’t fucking believe he's playing guitar.” 

Kozelek stepped off stage and Gibbard and Reyes played two new songs off of Death Cab For Cutie’s upcoming album. It was just Ben and the deep, dark piano notes owning the room, with only a blue light left off on them. It was flat-out beautiful. Gibbard's is one of the most recognizable voices in music today and to see him this intimately was beyond memorable. 

Our star joked with us one last time about a “non-core,” wherein the band just stays off to the side of the stage after the last song and steps up to play their last songs. “It’s a charade,” he joked and then poured out his feelings for Kozelek: “One of the great honors of my life is to call you a friend, Mark.” It was kind of surreal to be witnessing this musical moment as they broke into the Postal Service’s classic “Such Great Heights.” You could hear the smiles widening in the room and Kozelek plucking away at the guitar as Gibbard’s voice faded out to end the song made my night. 
“It was a little strange for me, but I'm glad that we did this.” Gibbard admitted of the bootstrapped band. But there wasn't even a shred of disappointment from the crowd. We showed up expecting a Ben Gibbard solo set, but instead, got broken-handed-Ben wonderfully rocking the mic with Mark fucking Kozelek on the guitar. Take notes, ‘cause this is how you kick off a festival.

Update: SF Weekly reader Allison Shiman just sent in this video, to boot. 

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