For indie-rockers in their late 20s and early 30s, it may feel a bit soon for 2000s nostalgia. Yet Thursday’s sold-out Showbox show — the first of a weekend-long, multi-venue festival celebrating Barsuk Records’ 15th anniversary — offered a couple surprises. One — much of this music still holds up. Two — local heroes Death Cab For Cutie played an unannounced acoustic set.
Barsuk didn’t only get in on the ground floor for Seattle’s post-grunge sea change — it was the ground floor. Initially a vehicle to release Death Cab’s early records, the label is now an influential source for sensitive, songwriter-oriented sounds from the Northwest and beyond.
And in the case of at least one group, redeemers.
Rewind to 2002. Left for dead by Elektra after one-and-done ‘90s hit “Popular,” New York’s Nada Surf had its third LP finished, but faced an uncertain future. Enter Barsuk, which not only put out that record, 2003’s reflective “Let Go” — played front-to-back Thursday — but Nada’s next three.
Without Death Cab, however, Barsuk wouldn’t exist, so it was only fitting that they’d, too, appear. At a quarter to ten, singer-guitarist Ben Gibbard, guitarist Chris Walla, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr took the stage, delighting the hometown audience.
“We wouldn’t miss this for the world,” Gibbard said with a smile, before launching into 30 minutes of material written between 1998 and 2003. Listening to wistful stories of summer flings (“Photobooth”) and aimless drives (“405”) in their unplugged state, one could vividly picture the foursome back in its collegiate Bellingham days, honing its intricate dual-guitar sound with little expectation that, years later, they’d be headlining arenas. It was just as easy to understand why this was who Barsuk chose to hitch its wagon to — a group so talented and likable, it transcended the indie realm.
For Nada, going on after Death Cab was like Nick Lowe following up Elvis Costello — similarly-minded songwriters, but less universal. Still, the band’s fans represented well, standing attentively for the nostalgic “Blonde on Blonde” and clapping along with the post-punkish “Hi-Speed Soul.”
“We didn’t have a lot going on when we wrote this record,” amiable singer-guitarist Matthew Caws told the crowd. Today, thanks in no small part to Barsuk’s vote of confidence, they do.
Long-running husband-and-wife duo Mates of State, which played earlier, hasn’t aged as gracefully. The cavernous Showbox wasn’t a great match for the group’s featherweight synth-pop, a sound better suited for living rooms and D.I.Y. spaces.
Onetime Death Cab tourmates The Prom, reunited specifically for the occasion, kicked things off. Driven by elegiac piano, the band’s set started on a glum note, but eventually got jauntier.
The four-night shindig continues Friday at The Neptune, with Seattle singer-songwriter John Roderick’s Long Winters headlining. David Bazan (of Pedro the Lion), Minor Alps (Caws’ side project with ’90s college-rock staple Juliana Hatfield) and Sunset Valley open.