Seattle-based Death Cab for Cutie has been around for almost 15 years now. They came out of that period in rock music when indie wasn’t quite yet the umbrella term for all things (“alternative” didn’t really capture their particular sound, despite the homteown history), and EMO was still the choice term for wimpy, heartbroken white boys in ugly cardigans who made melancholia so soft and somber, it could put you to sleep. Bands like The Promise Ring, Jets to Brazil, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Pedro the Lion fell into that category, and so did Death Cab for Cutie. My ears had always been wholly opposed. But then one day, I started dating a guy who played Death Cab albums for me, and eventually I had a change of heart.
The band has been busily touring this year to promote the release of their newest album, Codes and Keys. A guitar-free album. I presume the band is also doing a Hey, We’re Still Here! tour, the kind intended to show off long-awaited new material of a band that’s been around for what seems like forever. Part of the delay with Codes and Keys was how it was recorded — two weeks in the studio, then a break, and repeat. The band’s a little older, and with families now, and the old routine of writing, recording, and touring, doesn’t really fit anymore. That may be why Death Cab showed up in and near DC twice in such a short span of time. The first was a 9:30 Club show earlier in the summer that immediately sold out. The second was the roomier performance at Merriweather Post Pavilion earlier this month that we managed to get tickets for.
Phillipe calls it “Getting down with MPP.”
MPP is in Columbia, MD, which isn’t far from DC. But, it’s a location that eliminates some habitual show-goers because you need a car to get there. Still, it’s one of my favorite places for summer shows, although Death Cab may be the only one I see there this year. Merriweather is an outdoor venue with a big stage that faces a covered seating area, behind which is the lawn section where attendees setup their own seating. Obviously, it’s not the kind of setup for a band that fans rush the stage for, or start moshing to, although I’m not quite sure how they handle the annual Warped Tour, where rushing and moshing are a celebrated practice (they will also host this year’s Virgin Mobile Fest). There’s supposedly a history of legendary performers having once graced the stage. Folks like Hendrix and Zepplin. But nowadays, Merriweather generally hosts mellower, bigger name indie bands like My Morning Jacket, The National, Fleet Foxes, The Killers, Thievery Corporation. That sort of thing.
The acoustics are great at Merriweather, but you can’t really see the bands on the stage all that well from the lawn section, and if you are unfortunate enough to be stuck in the back, you won’t see them at all. Most of the lawn section watches the show from brightly lit Jumbotrons instead. Normally, I prefer to be as close to the stage as possible at shows, but here, I prefer the lawn seats. Pulling out the blankets or camping chairs and parking on the grass with my friends as we laze away a summer evening, talking and watching the bands perform. You’re not just another concert attendee. That kind of setup makes it your own thing. And we thankfully got a break from both a heat wave and the rain for the occasion. Unfortunately, were were still not free of the bugs.
I was surprised by how young the crowd was at this particular show. Most of those kids couldn’t have been older than 23 or 24, just babies when you think about how long Death Cab’s been around. Some were wonderfully enthusiastic, especially when Death Cab finally appeared. We sat next to a gaggle of girls who were ga-ga for Ben Gibbard, and seemed to know all of the songs by heart. Some might call that annoying, but I always appreciate an audience that doesn’t need their pulse checked. Nonetheless, I expected something more like the crowd at a Wilco show. Fedora’d folks in their mid 30s and early 40s who are married, probably with small children, and already starting to gray. Though, given that Scottish openers are fairly new to the scene, I wonder how many in the audience were lured to the show in part (or wholly) because of them? (Or maybe you had to be in middle school when Death Cab was starting out to be able to take that stuff seriously).
Frightened Rabbit – “Nothing Like You”
Frightened Rabbit has supported Death Cab for Cutie once before, during a UK and Ireland tour back in 2008. Their variety of indie rock is distinctly Scottish, and I don’t just mean lead singer Scott Hutchinson’s bold accent coming through. Most of the songs have this combination of backing vocals, rolling drums, keyboards, and of course, lovelorn lyrics, that sound very reminiscent of mildly famous UK bands out of the mid-80s. And, although their recorded ranges from stripped down to very meaty, on stage, the band seemed to get lost in the music (and maybe the volume), and even under the dreadful heat of the stage lights (it was pretty nice out otherwise), dutifully carried everything into something that felt like mini epics that seemed fit for foggy moors. Though wonderfully energetic, it’s a little too consistent for an hour-long set. Things start sounding the same.
Ben Gibbard was especially happy that they finally played “Keep Yourself Warm,” and even thanked whoever he thought made the request. I guess it makes sense that this song is Ben’s favorite. I’m more curious to know what situation or what person its songwriter had in mind when they were writing lyrics like “It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm.”
And then there was Death Cab for Cutie. They opened with the intensely creepy “I Will Possess Your Heart,” but play it so well, I wish I could find a similar live recording on YouTube. They had me at gritty bass riff that hooked you for minutes before the drums and eventually, the rest of the band cued up. The stage setting kind of switch between the panels of red and white superstar lights like a Video Music Awards show and bathing the band in seductive purples and blues against a backdrop of dimly lit looped images like arrows and a view of dusk from inside a car. And that’s kind of how show went, soft and sweet, but not too much.
The band hasn’t changed much in 15 years, although Ben Gibbard is no longer the doughy dork who’s wardrobe aged him 20 years. He was thin and gruff, though he still looked like a Muppet when he sang (bouncy head and a mouth that opens wide when he sings the lyrics as though he’s trying to swallow large, invisible words). And he probably lost more weight as he literally poured sweat throughout the set, thanking us all before starting the obligatory encore for sitting through it, and not realizing it’s just that stage that is so goddamned hot! Supposedly, Gibbard’s recent transformation is owed to kicking alcohol, running in marathons, and indulging veganism for a while (until realizing what little good it does for marathoners), all good habits that seemed to have come after meeting and marrying blue-eyed free-spirit, Zooey Deschanel, thereby making enemies with most men. I’d love to see those two do a show together.
I’ve never become much of a die-hard fan of Death Cab, despite evening album play being the best of dates with that guy I mentioned earlier (he was actually the one I bought tickets to the show for), but even I have to admit they played a pretty good show. Out of twenty-some songs, the band seemed to pick something from every album, which left about room for four songs from the new one, and I really liked this one:
Death Cab for Cutie “Doors Unlocked and Open”