Ben Gibbard paused apologetically just before his band played a mellow newer cut, “Grapevine Fires”: “I just realized we didn’t introduce ourselves. How rude – we just barge into your house and don’t introduce ourselves. We’re Death Cab for Cutie from Seattle, Washington.” To those at the Fabulous Fox Theatre on Monday night, though, the vocalist/guitarist's quartet needed no introduction. Its latest album, Narrow Stairs, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, and it’s set to open some dates for Neil Young in the coming weeks.
As Monday’s fantastic, well-paced set proved, the quartet has come a long way in the last decade. Early albums derived their charm and power from their emotional uncertainty and awkwardness, which manifested itself in rickety, moody riffs and words. An encore rendition of “Your Bruise” and the slo-fi “Title Track” (both of which date from the late ‘90s) felt anemic next to two muscular pop songs from Stairs, “Cath” and “No Sunlight.”
Indeed, while its music is no less intimate and vulnerable, Death Cab now oozes confidence onstage – and isn’t afraid of volume or dynamics. “Long Division” is a lurching bit of calculus disco-rock, while “The New Year” explodes in ambient watery fireworks, and “Bixby Canyon Bridge” built from a series of poetic verses into a loud, chugging rock song.
Gibbard still rocks back and forth while singing – a move reminiscent of a nervous kindergartener – but it’s a move now filled with purpose. Bassist Nick Harmer attacked his bass like a man possessed, particularly on “I Will Possess Your Heart,” a song whose searing bassline rumbles like a freight train crashing through a pile of rocks. Jason McGerr is a meticulous drummer, whether inserting interesting rhythms and fills (“The Sound of Settling”) or slamming his kit like an angry gorilla (“Transatlanticism”). And reed-thin guitarist/keyboardist Chris Walla, sporting a natty navy blue vest, striped shirt and dress pants, just looked like he was having fun, mainly because he was singing along to himself even when he wasn’t adding whispery harmonies to songs.
The band’s catalog is remarkably consistent, from the shimmering Brit homage “A Movie Script Ending” to the cinnamon-pop of “Soul Meets Body” and soaring “Marching Bands of Manhattan.” Even “Your Bruise” smoldered and didn’t sound thin – or dated. “Why’d You Want to Live Here” was even more ferocious, not the least because Gibbard was having guitar problems and ended up singing most of the song without playing his part. (Clearly frustrated, he looked at one point like he was going to throw his guitar off of his body, and made sure to say, “I want a do-over of that song,” after it ended.)
Still, the mood onstage and in the theater was light, loose and fun; Gibbard at one point high-fived a bunch of people in the front row. The crowd at the Fabulous Fox didn’t seem to mind any problems off stage, either; many danced and cheered for the whole set. In fact, it was amazing to see people stand up gradually after the show started, piecemeal inspired by each new song -- until by “Crooked Teeth,” most were up and moving. Even better, they were respectful enough that when Gibbard performed “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” solo on an acoustic guitar, it was quiet enough to hear the murmurs of those audience members singing along softly – a ghostly, moving moment.
Fleet Foxes, which was making its St. Louis debut, seemed awestruck by the Fabulous Fox’s ornate decorations. Early in its half-hour set, vocalist/guitarist Robin Pecknold said, “Does every building in St. Louis look like this? The Tomb Raider set? I want to live here.” (Cue audience approval.) In turn, the audience fell silent for the Seattle quintet’s jaw-dropping opening gig, enraptured by church-choir harmonies, campfire guitars and genial ‘70s percussion.
Although Fleet Foxes draws comparisons to My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses, its music thrives on simplicity, not bombast. The band members remain nearly still onstage -- save for drummer/percussionist J Tillman, a burly figure who’s always in motion creating festive percussion accompaniment using tambourine, mallets and maracas. Breathtaking and angelic four-part harmonies incorporate rounds (an elementary school music class staple), while the band members – most of whom resembled forest elves or gnomes, thanks to haircut and delicate facial features – utilized minimal, zen-like guitar plucking.
The cavernous theater created an environment of natural reverb that perfectly suited Fleet Foxes’ rustic folk. Several a cappella interludes were riveting; the CSNY-like “Mykonos” and “White Winter Hymnal,” which incorporated tinges of Wall of Sound influence, were other highlights. Had the Beach Boys grown up in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, they might have evolved into Fleet Foxes.
Still, this music wouldn’t emanate so much emotional warmth if the band took itself too seriously. And it certainly doesn’t. At one point someone in the crowd yelled out, “We love you, Fleet Foxes!” The band sort of laughed and said “that would be awesome if one of the faces on the wall” had said that instead – an aside which spawned in-band jokes and giggling regarding the absurd idea of the Fox’s decorations springing to life to comment.
Pecknold – whose olive green cardigan sweater, plaid shirt and slightly stooped posture gave him the air of a wizened old man -- seemed humbled and bashful at the genuine standing ovation his band received after the goosebump-inducing final song, “Blue Ridge Mountains.” Squinting at the audience, he seemed unsure how to react at the adoration heaped upon the band – a sweet, sincere reaction to have, even though Fleet Foxes deserved every bit of acclaim.
Death Cab for Cutie setlist:
“Bixby Canyon Bridge” “The New Year” “Why’d You Want to Live Here” “Crooked Teeth” “Long Division” “Grapevine Fires” “A Movie Script Ending” “Company Calls” “Title Track” “Soul Meets Body” “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” “I Will Possess Your Heart” “Cath…” “No Sunlight” “The Sound of Settling” “Marching Bands of Manhattan”
Encore: “Your Bruise” “Title and Registration” “Tiny Vessels” > “Transatlanticism”
(Fleet Foxes songs played, not in order and incomplete) “Sun It Rises” “Ragged Wood” “English House” “White Winter Hymnal” “Mykonos” “Blue Ridge Mountains”
-- Annie Zaleski