Death Cab For Cutie The Pageant October 2, 2011
Ben Gibbard has left us. The melancholic Ben Gibbard we once knew is gone, for all intents and purposes. He's skinny now, having swapped drinking for running, and he's got a new, Jordan Catalano haircut. He's visibly bouncy, perhaps from having swapped a string of failed relationships for the indie Holy Grail that is Zooey Deschanel. For 120 minutes last night, the Pageant got acquainted with the New Ben Gibbard, the married man with a Hollywood address who cares about his fans' sports teams and their preferences in his varied oeuvre. Love isn't watching someone die, as the Old Ben told us. It's watching them grow.
But Gibbard has long been riding on the mythic plane of the undisputed indie hero with James Murphy, Jeff Tweedy and precious few others. Last night he played every inch the rock god, from spitting on the stage between lyrics to tossing his guitar as if it were no more than a soiled Kleenex during "Your Heart is an Empty Room." But something was still missing from this new Ben; perhaps it's imagined, or maybe we just like him better drunk and miserable. Gives us something we can relate to.
This happens. Heroes grow up, their priorities change, their music changes, and truthfully we'd start to hate them if they kept playing the same shit year after year. But most of the audience has grown up right alongside these boys from Bellingham, Washington; our high school and college years were spent with Death Cab in tow, plaintively dripping out of our car stereos and iPods and stuffed into tender moments on Six Feet Under and Grey's Anatomy. They were the underdogs once upon a time, and while that ship may have sailed from the moment The O.C. showed Seth Cohen's bedroom with its Transatlanticism poster on the wall, the band has always managed to maintain a down-in-the-mouth façade. Until May of 2011, that is. While Codes and Keys shortcomings are by now old news, last night was the first chance for St. Lousians to hear the thing done live. The new material is peppier and weirder, and while weird experimentation highly encouraged in this age of widespread creative beige-ness, the album relied too heavily on old tropes and slinky production for its patina. Fittingly, the band swallowed its own party line in interviews leading up to the release of Codes and Keys. It lauded the new album; an apparently high Walla went so far as to call it a worthy heir to his long-held personal favorite album, We Have the Facts And We're Voting Yes. Gibbard must have been having a minor seizure when he named Eno's Another Green World as a clue to what to expect from the new album. But those bold pronouncements weren't evidenced on stage.
Rightfully so, this tour is more about the fans than moving copies of Codes and Keys. A full two hours of music spanning seven albums at mid-size clubs and larger amphitheaters, the band never wavered, never played a bad note, and kept the audience enthralled from the first notes of "I Will Possess Your Heart" to the final, gutting "I need you so much closer."
The band started at 9 p.m. on the dot with "I Will Possess Your Heart." Nick Harmer's meditative bass line thrummed into existence and stayed the course for the full nine minute jam, while Gibbard danced over the lyrics, taking pains to pull his head away from the mic for each repeated "love," as if afraid the last syllable would bite back. The cocksure pop of "Crooked Teeth" gave way to the paranoiac isolation of "We Laugh Indoors," which is as close to anthemic, arena shaking rock as the band get; The Arcade Fire it is not. Death Cab specializes in subtlety and nuanced sounds designed to fill a bedroom. Its liberal use of lyric repetition ("infinite repeat") on the absolute best songs never fails to move, though the "I loved you Guineveres" "Who's gonna watch you dies" and "I need you so much closers" played in such close proximity to one another got a bit tiresome. Devices such as these are forgivable if they go largely unnoticed, but (perhaps appropriately) called to mind Franny's religious koan in Franny and Zooey, the very book Gibbard's wife was named after.
Walla's sparse, gold-toned synth set off the mellow "Grapevine Fires, " which Gibbard introduced as a "West Coast song. It lives on the West Coast but it travels around the country." The barely noticeable vocal effects on kraut-y new track "Doors Unlocked" brought an unexpected menace to the proceedings, Walla's effects and vox providing a sweet foil to the motorik rhythm and Gibbard's chilly calls of "Isolation." Walla likewise led sweetly on the keys for the lugubriously beautiful "What Sarah Said."
Gibbard thanked the audience every few songs, and even got in a public service announcement for Vintage Vinyl. "You guys have got a great record store down the street. I'm not doing a commercial here, I bought a bunch of great stuff today;" mentioning that he picked up a Joe Tex record. "We can geek out about this later," he said, before busting out his acoustic for the 2,000 strong sing-a-long, "I Will Follow You Into the Dark."
Before "A Movie Script Ending" Gibbard told the audience that, fourteen years ago, his was a no name band when its members read an ad in the Stranger, one of Seattle's alt-weeklies, that said "Will someone from Death Cab call this number." The ad was placed by none other than Evan Sult, then of Harvey Danger, and now our own darling Sleepy Kitty. "We wouldn't be where here right now if it weren't for Evan Sult and Sean Nelson."
The band reached back a ways for "Company Calls," from its second, critically acclaimed We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, and cheers of recognition met the "Epilogue". The crowd followed Gibbard's every move all night, clapping in time with him, singing his lyrics, vocalizing their admiration when he sat down at a small drum kit and mirrored skinsman Jason McGerr on the surprisingly busty jam of "We Looked Like Giants." They closed the twenty-song set with lovelorn "Cath" and buoyant "The Sound of Settling."
"I love doing this right here. Cards are up five to four in the bottom of the 8th," Gibbard said, after returning to the stage. He didn't have to win over the crowd, but dedicating the first encore song, "Title and Registration" to the Redbirds managed it. The specter of Deschanel loomed large over another new one, "Stay Young Go Dancing;" without her this egregious sentiment and title would not be possible. The sing-songy melody and trite "When she sings/I hear a symphony" makes it the least forgivable of the Codes and Keys material. Until now, we could rely on Death Cab to frame these upbeat pop songs with thematic darkness -- the happy jaunt of "Sound of Settling" had Gibbard dealing with fleeting youth and impending senility, the poppy pep of "Crooked Teeth" proclaims "There was nothing there all along."
The torqued three-ax strong "Blacking Out the Friction" melted seamlessly into "St. Peter's Cathedral." "This is the end, there's nothing past this," he sang again and again, though of course there was one more, and there always will be one more: "Transatlanticism" was properly flawless with it's electronic echo knocking in the indistinct distance, and Gibbard taking care to make it seven minutes that'll last a whole year.
He thanked the crowd one last time and left the stage, but seconds later trotted back into view with a simple, house-raising exclamation: "Cards win!"
This band has come as close as anyone in this generation to making classic music; music that will hopefully find its way into our children's hands when they need it most. Transatlanticism has etched its place in history, and Gibbard has undoubtedly altered the musical landscape in a real and lasting way. The Postal Service will remain in the Sub Pop cannon as the label's second-best selling album, and the sweet irony of Owl City promos running on the house flat screens did not go unnoticed.
Death Cab for Cutie has grown up with us. The lush, dopamine-deprived Transatlanticism found us in a time of war, with SARS on the radar and a horrific joke in the White House. The nihilistic underpinnings of Plans reflected an uncertain time marred by war and lack of transparency from all corners, not to mention another term for the horrific joke. 2008 and the still-searching prog of Narrow Stairs had Gibbard at an all-time low, channeling Kerouac and sadder than ever. After six albums of sad bastard, the New Ben is definitely going to take some getting used to. But he's always been there for us, maybe now it's time to repay the favor.
Notes and setlist on the next page.
Click here for a full slideshow of Death Cab for Cutie at the Pageant. The Crowd: Young, old, born in the 60's, born in the 90's, didn't matter. A teenager who had obviously dragged his parents to the show remained seated during the encore while his parents stood and grooved.
Personal Bias: Listening to my baby sister's angelic soprano join with the choir of voices echoing "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" flooded my eyes with happy tears. As much as Death Cab echoed through my adolescence and young adulthood, it's soundtracked my sister's entire cognizant existence. She was 10 when I brought home We Have the Facts, and she's the one who convinced me to give Narrow Stairs another chance when I was snobbishly certain I'd outgrown the band.
Overheard: "I'm fine with staying, if you want to. "I could go or I could stay, it's whatever you wanna do." "Wanna stay two more songs maybe? "Sure, I want to get some pictures before we go anyway." Three songs in. A new record? Priorities, ladies!
Openers:Telekinesis began the night with a set that time-traveled, unwisely, back into the first half of the last decade, back when it was still okay that Fall Out Boy were on the radio. If they were doing this ten years hence, when the aughts will be ripe for thoughtless pillage, it would be another story. This tour has the potential to obliterate obscurity for a band, but unfortunately, their energetic pop punk requires Walla's skilled hand in the production room to be palatable.
Setlist I Will Possess Your Heart Crooked Teeth We Laugh Indoors Photobooth Doors Unlocked Long Division Grapevine Fires Codes and Keys What Sarah Said I Will Follow You Into the Dark Your Heart is an Empty Room You Are a Tourist The New Year Company Calls Company Calls Epilogue Soul Meets Body A Movie Script Ending Cath We Looked Like Giants The Sound of Settling
Encore Title and Registration Stay Young Go Dancing Blacking Out the Friction St. Peter's Cathedral Transatlanticism