Indie artists help quiet inauguration blues

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There was a palpable feeling of distress in the air as Donald Trump officially became the new President of the United States.  People who felt that way searched for ways to cope, whether they were heatedly protesting or taking the day to just relax and indulge in comforting behaviors. Many turned to live music on Jan. 20, something that never fails to bring spirits up, and help escape the stressful outside world. For this particular night, the music of Ben Gibbard and Julien Baker were just enough to cloud the outside worries of the real world.

The Death Cab for Cutie frontman announced a pair of solo shows at Thalia Hall back in October. Acknowledging that the shows would be set on the Thursday and Friday of inauguration weekend, Gibbard admitted to anticipating he would be feeling a lot more celebratory. Nonetheless, he and Baker used their art to comfort those feeling distressed and help provide an uplifting and positive environment.

The music began at 8:30 p.m. each night, when Baker stepped up to the microphone and immediately launched into her set. Baker, who released her debut album on Bandcamp back in 2015 and has since become an indie favorite, excels at blending transcendent guitar playing with heart-wrenching lyrics and a voice that will stop you in your tracks. As she played tracks from her album “Sprained Ankle,” plus two new songs, the crowd stood silent in awe, afraid to even sing along in fear of breaking the spell. At the end of each song, she would humbly thank the crowd as fans quietly wiped away tears from their cheeks. Despite the powerful emotions, Baker’s set never became too gloomy; in between songs she would joke about not having enough “dad-joke banter material” or lightheartedly refer to her song “Everybody Does” (a song with the line “I know I’m a pile of filthy wreckage you will wish you never touched”) as the only up-tempo song in her catalog.

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Gibbard, singer of the band Death Cab for Cutie played at the Chicago Theatre. (Photo courtesy of CHICAGO TRIBUNE)

While Baker’s sets had the reverence similar to a religious service, Gibbard’s sets allowed the crowd to joyously sing along to the anthems of their high school days. Drawing from the various projects he’s been involved in throughout his musical career, each night saw a different collection of songs.

Gibbard recalled the joy he felt last year writing the song “Me and Magdalena” for The Monkees, who were his favorite band as a kid. In honor of his recent marriage, he opened an encore by covering “The Things You Said” by his wife’s favorite band Depeche Mode (and joked not to look into the song’s depressing story of betrayal too much). In between covers, he played several Death Cab for Cutie songs, ranging from the hits (“I Will Follow You into the Dark” and “Crooked Teeth”) rarer tracks (“What Sarah Said” and “Steadier Footing”). He also played tracks like “Such Great Heights” and “Brand New Colony” from his more electronic-based group The Postal Service, who he referred to as a “fake band.”

During night two, to celebrate the sold-out shows, Baker joined Gibbard for duet on the Death Cab song “Photobooth,” a song Baker covered for the A.V. Club last year.

Just as the political events going on outside Thalia Hall, Gibbard and Baker did not entirely ignore the orange elephant in the room. The night of the inauguration, Baker wore a shirt with the statements “I stand for equality: anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-semitism, anti-transphobia” on the back. Gibbard got the audience laughing by exclaiming that he had begun to study the Russian language, just in case.

Both used their voice to ask the Thalia Hall crowd to look out for one another, especially those on the marginalized corners who may struggle more in this new administration. They also preached about the significance and power of music during times like these.

This new political climate may change many things about the world we know, but if art like Ben Gibbard’s and Julien Baker’s continues to be created, we will still have art to comfort us, challenge injustice and keep hope alive.