I drove five hours to see Death Cab and The Postal Service. It was totally worth it.
We all have those events — concerts, sports, weddings, etc. — we'd consider attending regardless of cost and travel. For me, I usually need a little incentive to make going to these events a reality: opportunities to visit landmarks, see distant friends, etc.
So, when Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service (two of my all-time favorite bands) announced a joint tour celebrating the 20th anniversaries of their seminal albums, my mind immediately started weighing the logistics of getting to the show. See, when the tour was announced in December 2022, there was exactly one show located in the central time zone: The Armory in Minneapolis on Sunday, Sept. 24 (they later added two shows in Chicago).
Minneapolis isn't too far to the average Midwestern road-tripper. But it isn't particularly close, either.
When it comes to seeing two albums indispensable to their genres and formative to my upbringing — Death Cab's Transatlanticism and Postal Service's Give Up — that I may never be able to see performed live again, I deemed it worth the five-plus-hour journey.
The thing about visiting other cities for cultural events is that you get to compare them to your home city. In this case, unfortunately, Milwaukee doesn't hold a candle to what Minneapolis has going for its downtown sports and entertainment district. The baseball stadium, basketball arena, football stadium and major concert venue are all in the downtown corridor, connected by a robust network of bike lanes, buses and a convenient light-rail line.
Milwaukee also doesn't have a venue that compares to the Armory. Built in 1936, it primarily served the Minnesota National Guard but also had other uses, including concerts, civic events and hosting the Minneapolis Lakers before the team moved to Los Angeles in 1960. It eventually lost its luster and became a parking garage in the mid-2000s. Then, in 2017, an investment group spruced it up again as an events-only mega-venue.
I did none of this research before I walked in the door, so I was pretty surprised by the sheer size of it. After getting through security, which functioned like the building had a military background, stairs take you directly into the rear of the space, opposite the stage. As I looked up at the high arched roof, my first thought was: Oh wow, this place is massive. Ben Gibbard, the mastermind behind this tour as lead man for both Death Cab and Postal, at one point called it "so cavernous and awesome."
The wide-open floor was completely packed before opener Warpaint began promptly at 7:30 p.m. Two building-length VIP levels flanked the sides, highlighted by frequent flashes of strobe lights carried by bottle servers, like they would in a Miami nightclub. Adjacent to the steps, a long merch table (with 19 shirt options) was surrounded by orderly chaos. We squeezed our way along the side wall to the middle of the crowd, a sold-out 8,400 capacity that definitely felt like more.
Death Cab for Cutie
As I wrote earlier, both Transatlanticism and Give Up were formative for me, but in different ways. The former, released in October of 2003, is a quintessential record that toes the line of indie rock and pseudo-folk. It's an album that has gotten me — and presumably many others — through long-distance relationships and break-ups. Many tears have been shed to this record.
There's something really special about anniversary shows because you can almost guarantee most of the people in attendance are there to see a particular album that resonated with them in some way. This was evident from the get-go, as I and others around me sang the lyrics to some "deep cuts" like "The New Year," "Expo '86" and "We Looked Like Giants."
With "album in full" shows, you can also rely on the predictability of the setlist. In this case, there was a palpable build-up to the record's title track, a weighty eight-minute tear-jerker that includes a simple lyric I'm sure was a mainstay of AIM profiles everywhere: "I need you so much closer."
Yet for as much as I love this 20-year-old album and the nostalgia accompanying, I couldn't help but feel that this isn't an album meant to be performed front to back live. The track list oscillates too much for the crowd — and the band, for that matter — to hit any sort of groove.
Rock song ... slow sad song ... upbeat rock ... back to the sadness.
I felt like Gibbard, in a mood-setting all-black outfit, was trying too hard to make Transatlanticism work. Don't get me wrong, it was all good. But some of the songs are better left recorded.
After a tidy 47-minute Death Cab performance, Gibbard announced he'd be back in 15 minutes for the second portion of the show. He was right on, coming out in an all-white ensemble along with Postal Service bandmates Jimmy Tamborello and Jenny Lewis.
It may be the nature of Give Up's upbeat sound when compared to Transatlanticism, but Gibbard seemed like a different performer for the second act. His voice sounded stronger, and his presence was more energetic. He even hopped up on the drum kit at times to bang around and add more substance to the tracks.
The tone was set from the jump, almost by default, because the first two songs on the album are by far the most popular in its 20-year history. "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" and "Such Great Heights" had the floor literally bouncing, which was a little scary until I remembered we were in a literal military shelter.
The energy kept going throughout, with peaks at sometimes unexpected moments. That included song No. 4 in the set, "Nothing Better," which prominently features Lewis's vocals. The crowd erupted every time she was featured, but especially for her solo in that duet.
Another standout moment was toward the end of the set, when Gibbard invited the arena to join in singing the outro to "Brand New Colony." You better believe I was belting out: "Everything will change, oooooh."
The final surprise was the encore, which wasn't a given considering we already got two headliners for the price of one. After an acoustic duet of "Such Great Heights" with Lewis (which I could've done without, honestly), Gibbard brought out his Death Cab bandmates to join Postal for a very well-done rendition of Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence."
In the end, both sets equaled the length of an average show, wrapping up around 10:30 p.m. But I could've stood in that packed crowd until midnight (or later) listening to Gibbard and co. reprise the hits and rare cuts that helped catapult careers and impact the lives of so many, like me.
And it wouldn't matter the place or distance from home — I would do it again.