Last weekend was one to celebrate for the many people behind our most recent cover subject, Seattle’s Barsuk Records. For starters, it marked 10 years of some of the label’s biggest releases—Death Cab for Cutie’s massive Transatlanticism, The Long Winters’ When I Pretend to Fall, Nada Surf’s Let Go and Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter’s Reckless Burning. And past that, 2013 marked an official 15-year anniversary of when the label stepped foot in the music biz, releasing it’s first major album in the form of Death Cab’s Something About Airplanes.
The event was defined by these 2003 albums, many of which were played in their entirety for the crowds—Transatlanticism being the exception here, which still didn’t keep the label’s decade-defining act from making an unbilled appearance at Thursday’s showcase. “C’mon, you didn’t really think we wouldn’t show up,” a smiling Ben Gibbard told the crowd. They’d go on to play only Barsuk-era tracks—spanning You Can Play These Songs With Chords to Transatlanticism—so this one was a bummer to miss for Death Cab fans of the “I only like their early stuff” variety.
But above successful albums, some awesome new material (tracks from Cymbals Eat Guitars’ new album sound incredible live, by the way, as do cuts from Phantogram) and a big acknowledgement of a passing of time, Barsuk’s big weekend was defined by the overwhelming presence of camaraderie among this group of musicians. Here, the venues were a place where you could have a chat with John Roderick in the crowd of his own headlining show or bump into Gibbard outside of a venue. For most, this wasn’t just a celebration of a place that finances vinyl and CDs to be printed. It was a celebration of home, from old acts (The Prom, which got a special fill-in from Telekinesis’ Michael Lerner) to brand new (Maps and Atlases, Cymbals Eat Guitars).
Although Death Cab for Cutie had just ripped through an acoustic set of their Barsuk-era tracks, spanning from You Can Play These Songs With Chords to their final Barsuk release, Transatlanticism, the set I was most excited for was Nada Surf’s headlining take on their Barsuk debut, Let Go. The album represented a bit of a rebirth for the New York band, which was expected to fizzle out after the one-off success of “Popular” in the ‘90s.
With one exception (the tracklist got a little jumbled after the fifth song, swapping “Killian’s Red” with the hard-hitting live staple “Hi-Speed Soul”), the expanded band ripped through the album’s 12 tracks just as planned. For us, this was the first chance we’d had to catch many of the songs live, including “Treading Water” as well as a few never-before-performed b-sides from Let Go. Touring guitarist (and former Guided By Voices member) Doug Gillard added a nice touch to the songs, which were normally performed by the band as a three piece when it was released. The lineup also included Louie Lino on keyboards, who acted as a touring member for the band as well as Let Go’s producer and filled out some of the more subtle tones throughout the album.
Night two showcased some of the label’s most beloved mainstays, with David Bazan showing off new, gorgeous arrangements with a string quartet. Songs like Headphones’ “Shittalker” and Bazan’s own “How I Remember” crawled to their climaxes (in a great way), bringing the undeniably great lyricist’s words to the forefront. The Long Winters’ headlining set was as much about banter as it was the music, but it’s not like the crowd was complaining. The back-and-forth between frontman John Roderick and keyboardist Sean Nelson (formerly of Harvey Danger) was enough to keep even the most unaware of attendees glued to the performance, both taking crack after crack at each other and the history of the band. “It’s so nice that they reserved the balcony for former Long Winters members,” Nelson said at one point, with Roderick later extending two middle fingers toward the area. Oh yeah, and they played When I Pretend to Fall all the way through, and it was great.
Night three was about showing off new acts, headlined by one of the newest Barsuk acts to blow up—Phantogram. After a great one-man set from Say Hi, which featured a lone sampler and laptop, Cymbals Eat Guitars set the tone by ripping through new song after new song, electing to show off recently written cuts rather than leaning on old material. If what was played was any indication of the full-length, they’ve got a strong offering on the way. Maps and Atlases, a band that finally found its footing on Barsuk after a handful of EPs and one full-length, reinforced that after two LPs and a couple of scatterbrained early offerings, they’re still artists to be looking to for inventive new material. Menomena, as always, brought the house down—this time behind their most recent Barsuk offering, Moms.
Sadly, our plane schedules cut night four short, and we headed out on Sunday, shortly after another surprise set from Death Cab’s Benjamin Gibbard. Leading up to it, we caught shows from Rocky Votolato, who recently left the label to go the Kickstarter route. Laura Gibson took the stage before that, performing a direct solo set that cemented a great tone for the night filled with folk-leaning acts. Gibbard’s offering this time around was much different than Death Cab’s set, and he took on songs from his first proper solo album, Former Lives, and also covered collaborations with Jay Farrar as well as some early Death Cab nuggets. No “Cath…” or “Soul Meets Body” here.
For fans of the label, the weekend was one not to miss. Not only did it showcase acts over Barsuk’s long career, it brought the entire community together for a packed weekend of awesome tunes. After all, a time like this was perfect to reflect on accomplishments, and if the weekend was any indication, Barsuk should be patting itself on the back.