One of those insane Missouri summer storms marred the drive to Columbia on Saturday afternoon. You know the type: blinding sheets of rain, jagged forked lightning and plenty of dark clouds with graying wisps that could turn into funnels under the right conditions. This uncertainty put Death Cab for Cutie’s Saturday night outdoor show in jeopardy.
But the skies eventually cleared and it had turned into a beautiful night by showtime. To wild cheers, the quartet launched straight into “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” the first song on its new album, Narrow Stairs. “Bridge” built from vocalist/guitarist Ben Gibbard singing over music that sounded like ambient R.E.M. into a loud, squalling rocker, resembling a conductor leading a symphony into a thundering denouement. The Seattle band kept that momentum going straight into a charging version of Transatlanticism’s “The New Year” and The Photo Album chestnut “Why You’d Want to Live Here.”
"Soul Meets Body" from Columbia. (My camera broke. Just imagine pictures in your head, from this video.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the crowd near the front gave the band mostly blank stares during any songs pre-Transatlanticism -- including Photo Album gems “We Laugh Indoors” (which featured an insane math-rock-ish breakdown in the middle) and the We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes indie-rock see-saw “Company Calls.” Gibbard – sporting a plaid shirt, mutton-chop sideburns and no glasses – joked about the band’s neo-fans by asking the crowd, “How many of you were here six years ago on the Death and Dismemberment tour?” referring to the band’s 2002 co-tour with Dismemberment Plan. (Our section cheered loudly; others, not so much.) “This is for you!” he said, and then launched into “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” the über-sappy, cavity-inducing hit from the band’s major label debut, Plans. Did he mean us old-timers were champs for following the band into the dark side of major labels or for sticking with them despite prom-theme Bic-flickers -- or a knowing wink to the cheesiness of the song? (Verdict: still out.)
Several things stood out about the set, however. For starters, the band has become a supremely confident live act; any tentativeness it exhibited on past tours is completely gone. Bassist Nick Harmer in particular strutted around the stage (sporting maroon New Balance kicks; choice) with a near-swagger – especially on a menacing, heart-searing version of the eight-minute epic “I Will Possess Your Heart.” (Perhaps the billowing clouds of atmosphere generated by the smoke machine had something to do with this as well.)
Guitarist/keyboardist/noise manipulator Chris Walla jokingly imitated metal gods by doing a windmill riff at one point, but generally kept the band anchored with steady, solid performances. And at the end of set-closer “Transatlanticism,” Jason McGerr aped (pardon the pun) a gorilla gone mad, he was playing his drums with so much force.
Oddly enough, many of Narrow’s songs (which tend toward mellow, AAA-radio fare) didn’t fit in with the intense mood of this live show. (In fact, many a bathroom break was taken during the soporific “Grapevine Fires.”) To that end, the setlist didn’t favor any one album over the next – an odd phenomenon for a band touring in support of a new record. But as a testament to Death Cab’s staggeringly cohesive career, newer songs didn’t feel out of place next to older tunes. Facts’ “405” segued neatly and directly into Plans’“Your Heart is an Empty Room,” despite the five-year gap between creation. Stairs’ loping twang-rocker “Cath” and calculus-rocking “Long Division” meshed with past hit singles “The Sound of Settling” and “Soul Meets Body.” Most important, Death Cab has become one of the best bands around today by never losing sight of its core sound and identity -- even as it’s experimented and evolved.
(for sure in order)“Bixby Canyon Bridge” “The New Year” “Why You’d Want to Live Here” “Photobooth”
(then it gets hazy) “Crooked Teeth” “Company Calls” “Cath” "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" "Grapevine Fires" "A Movie Script Ending" "Long Division" "We Laugh Indoors" "Soul Meets Body" “I Will Possess Your Heart” “The Sound of Settling” “Marching Bands of Manhattan”
Encore: (older song) "Title and Registration" "405" --> "Your Heart Is an Empty Room" "Transatlanticism"