Death Cab for Cutie | photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Indie luminaries Death Cab for Cutie were in top form for a dynamic Tower set
Does anybody out there remember a thing called The Death and Dismemberment tour? Named in homage to a throwaway line in Bill Murray’s existential comedy Groundhog Day, and savvily designed to get as many turn-of-the-millennium indie rock fans in a theater as possible, the 2001 run starred Death Cab For Cutie, hot off the release of their emotive third LP The Photo Album, and the beloved math rock outfit The Dismemberment Plan. I specifically remember the Philly press at the time puzzledly contrasting the high-octane DisPlan with the “quiet as a kitten Death Cab.”
Again, this was 2001. It’s now seventeen years later, and Death Cab is no longer quiet as a kitten.
Over the course of nearly two decades, Ben Gibbard and his bandmates have refined their sound and style to become more emphatic and epic, playing with structure and dynamics to let songs slowly swell from the lowest lows to the loudest louds; they’ve also made their music more readily accessible to mainstream through memorable hooks and pop melodies. And though it was a much longer time coming, they’ve gradually honed their craft as performers.
This last thing was the tricky part; I saw the band play The Troc while touring their breakout 2003 LP Transatlanticism, and was summarily underwhelmed by a group of players who were aloof, possibly uncomfortable, definitely unpersonable, and whose live playing abilities did not yet match the bold scope of their studio work. When the Plans tour fared even worse, with the indie-at-heart band stiffly running through their first material written for a big-business major label, I wrote their gigs off for a decade, shrugging “I guess Death Cab for Cutie just isn’t a very good live band.”
And then I caught them at Made In America in 2015. And they were massive, moving, and emotional; their stage presence was lively and engaging; the intricacies of their catalog finally resonated in the way they did when I listened alone on my headphones; and the crowd, largely comprised of folks clamoring to have a good spot for EDM titan Bassnectar, talked loudly and drunkenly over their set. I was somewhat devastated; finally, Death Cab for Cutie sounded like the band I always knew it could, and it was doing so in front of a group of mostly indifferent listeners due to bad festival programming.
Which is what made last night at the Tower Theater so special. Gibbard and co. played a sold out house of engaged fans eager to see them, and the band was massive — loud, animated, excited. In short, it was the Death Cab for Cutie Concert I’d been waiting a decade and a half to see.
Another thing that made the night special was the opening set from Charly Bliss, an ideal way to start the night. The NYC indie pop band channels the spirit of late 90s / early 00s faves like Letters to Cleo, that dog., and The Breeders, and spins it into their own post-millennial pop nuggets. Frontperson Eva Hendricks sprinted to the mic and greeted the crowd with a shout, launching immediately into the impossible-not-to-love “Westermarck” from last year’s Guppy. They kept the energy high, with Hendricks spending as much time airborne and in her bandmates’ faces as she spent at the mic, and new jams like “Heaven” sat well along the set-closing “Glitter.” The band also lowkey evidenced their versatility when Hendricks acknowledged the temporary lineup shift; lead guitarist Andrew Costa had to drop off the tour due to personal reasons, so bassist / vocalist Dan Shure took his spot, and the band’s friend (and video director) Andrew Costa filled in on bass. It was a seamless shift, and Charly Bliss filled its half hour allotment admirably. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that they recorded an Indie Rock Hit Parade session at WXPN last summer; listen to it here.
A half hour later, Death Cab for Cutie took the stage bathed in blue lights, moving to the head-spinning shuffle and Cure-esque guitar tones of “I Dreamt We Spoke Again.” In the same way that it opened the show, it also opens Thank You For Today, Death Cab’s latest album and best work since 2008’s Narrow Stairs. Gibbard was a bit coy when doing the requisite plug for the record — “ah, moderate excitement, I see how it is,” he said to the non-deafining applause — but with seven of its ten songs populating the setlist, there was a sense that most people in the room, band and fan alike, knew what a strong work this was. While the propulsively produced “Gold Rush” had the modern rock radio listeners bobbing along, the ethereal “60 and Punk” — a resplendent piano ballad and curtain call for the aging scenester — had just as much of the venue locked in. “Long Division” and “Autumn Love” stood along side the band’s poppiest moments, while the cerebral, skittish “Summer Years” found Gibbard once again playing the jilted romantic obsessive we meet in what would go on to be the set centerpiece, “I Will Possess Your Heart”: “And I wonder where you are tonight / If the one you’re with was a compromise.”
Landing where it did in the set, “Possess” was riveting: Nick Harmer’s iconic bass riff took the wheel for damn near ten minutes as different elements of the song’s architecture rose and fell, Gibbard rushing from guitar to piano and back, Jason McGerr kicking back in a motorik drumbeat, Dave Depper adding all manner of textures on synths. It hit heavy, filling the theater with sound and lifting the room’s collective energy. It was also interesting to see how the song’s central character study has transformed in the decade since its release. While the first-person lyrics of “Possess” were always a tad on the creepy side, in 2008 they felt more like a raw examination of emotional lows in the aftermath of heartbreak. Listening now, in the post-#MeToo era, the character Gibbard sketches comes across like toxic masculinity personified, a desperate and unrelenting aggressor, and the bridge — “You reject my advances and desperate pleas / I won’t let you let me down so easily” — is downright threatening.
For his part, Gibbard didn’t spend any time at The Tower editorializing on how to read the song in 2018, nor any of his ambiguous older lyrics. Should we be grossed out when he sings “They’re all basically the same / so I don’t ask names anymore” in “Expo ’86?” Is the person singing “Cath…” a reliable narrator as they self-righteously look down upon the song’s tragic, emotionally-torn namesake? Is “Tiny Vessels” misogynist and predatorial — the “you are beautiful but you don’t mean a thing to me” admission one of blasé nonchalance — or is the “I” of the song not exempt from critique and judgement? As Transatlanticism in particular ages further into iconic album status, one would hope it’s the latter. The walls of the Tower practically shook as Death Cab shut down the show with the album’s title track last night, its message of hope, healing, and bridging a divide resonating loudly as Zac Rae repeated the song’s lead lick ad infinatum. With that, it seemed to indicate that the band too was in that same, forward-directed headspace. It was also incredible, finally, hearing that song played live in the way it deserved to be played, for a room of listeners held in rapt attention, even as the amps rung out and the players exited at stage right.
The gig also included a few tunes for the day-ones: “A Movie Script Ending” was a treat early on, even if there was no acknowledgement of The Photo Album being released 17 years ago last night. (Guess it was a function of odd anniversary + an album whose cultural impact is negligible.) “Title Track” from We Have The Facts and We’re Voting Yes grooved in the wake of “Possess,” though latter day Death Cab fans used this opportunity for a bathroom break (their loss). There was perhaps too much Plans and not enough Narrow Stairs, but a gripping rendition of “Doors Unlocked and Open” has me interested to revisit the (what I previously saw as) forgettable 2011 offering Codes and Keys, and tremendous performances of “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” and “Black Sun” from 2015’s Kingtusi served as a reminder that Death Cab For Cutie’s newest work is, in many ways, stronger than its oldest.
Below, take a look at a gallery of photos from the concert, and scan the setlist. Death Cab For Cutie returns to the Tower Theater tonight for round two; tickets for the show are still available, and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.
I Dreamt We Spoke Again
The Ghosts of Beverly Drive
Title and Registration
A Movie Script Ending
What Sarah Said
60 & Punk
I Will Possess Your Heart
Doors Unlocked and Open
Soul Meets Body
The Sound of Settling
I Will Follow You Into The Dark
Near / Far