Barsuk Records likely wouldn’t have made it to its 15th anniversary, celebrated last week with five shows in four days, if not for Benjamin Gibbard and his seminal band Death Cab For Cutie.
So it makes sense that early on at Sunday night’s show at the Tractor featuring Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter people were starting to ask: “Do you think Ben Gibbard is going to play?” He had been seen around the club and Barsuk had promised “special guests” for the penultimate show in their birthday bash.
Gibbard didn’t disappoint and came on just before 9 p.m., looking sharp and svelte in a black shirt and dark jeans. He started his short solo acoustic set off with a joke — “Hi, I’m Gordon Reynolds,” which got a big laugh — and “Oh, Woe,” off his 2012 solo album “Former Lives.” Gibbard has been busy this week (Death Cab was the “special guest” at Thursday’s Showbox at the Market anniversary show) but he seemed happy for another chance to thank Seattle’s upstart label.
Fittingly, Gibbard used his affecting “You Remind Me of Home” to close out his 30 minutes before giving way to Sykes and the atmospheric alt-country of “Reckless Burning,” which the band played in its entirety. The fact that Gibbard and Sykes are both on Barsuk says a lot about the company’s desire to be the kind of label that fosters strong songwriting, no matter the style of music.
Even if Sykes’ brand of slow-burn tales of misfortune don’t gibe with the shinier indie rock that’s been on display all week, she had the sold-out crowd hooting their support and singing along. Despite a rough start when her guitar wouldn’t work, Sykes and her band turned in several gems, from the sweet harmonies of “Lonely Still” to the tidal ebb and flow that comprises “Drinking With Strangers.”
Sykes has a certain archness to her voice and she used it to great effect on “Don’t Let Me Go,” which crossed over the alt-country line to a more traditional sound. While much of “Reckless Burning” felt like watching a fire smolder, the heavy groove and bluesy menace of “Made of Wood” allowed the flames to explode.
After working all the way through its debut release, the band turned its sights to a few cuts off 2004′s “Oh, My Girl,” leaving the audience with “Troubled Soul” as a final thought.
Though Sykes played with a full band, the other performances Sunday were acoustic sets. Laura Gibson opened things up with seven songs, including “Sleeper,” which she told the crowd was written in Seattle “a long time ago.”
Rocky Votolato (Waxwing) and his brother, Cody (The Blood Brothers), combined forces to deliver an energetic set of Americana rockers. They started their set with “Alabaster,” from 2003′s “Suicide Machine,” before working through the alt-rock of “Little Spring” and “White Daisy Passing,” which Rocky dedicated to “all the Barsukers here.”
They finished things off with “Goldfield,” elevating the introspective tune to a cathartic rocker before Gibbard delighted the crowd with his surprise appearance. A late show featuring Ra Ra Riot and Aqueduct at the Sunset Tavern down the street closed out Barsuk’s birthday celebrations.
-Owen R. Smith, on Twitter @inanedetails