The marquee outside of the Avalon might have well read “Music 245, Death Cab for Cutie and the Transatlantic Transformation.” With pensive college students staring curiously at the four-man Seattle band, the Avalon seemed more like a lecture hall than a rock venue Tuesday night. Yes, a few indie rockers were scattered about, and several twenty- and thirty-somethings mingled, but the overwhelming majority of the room was attending their Tuesday night class, trying to discern the complex sound waves striking their academic ears. Some heads bobbed, a few hands waved and a scattering of lips mouthed the soulful words of lead singer Ben Gibbard. The house was all but dead. Yet, somehow, Death Cab played unaffected. Enduring in this uninspiring atmosphere, they unraveled a spectacular set and treated the collegiate audience to a musical feast.
Openers Pretty Girls Make Graves kicked off the show with a solid set. A fellow Seattle-based group, the band was invited to tour with Death Cab and is promoting its 2004 release Good Health. Forced to cope with an even more passive audience than that which faced Death Cab, they nonetheless played with great verve and precise rhythm. However, their upbeat and punk-influenced style was a fiery prelude to the more nuanced and contemplative Death Cab.
The decision to open with the mellow “Title Track” from their 2000 album We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes was a curious choice for the Death Cabbies. Why open with such a mellow song? Moments later the pounding chords of “The New Year” answered all questions, and the combination made perfect sense. The first song merely set up the captivating “New Year” in a brilliant juxtaposition that prefaced a night of masterful song arrangement and exquisite musicianship. Combining highly recognizable material from their Transatlanticism album with lesser known tales of woe like “Lowell, MA,” “Photobooth,” and “Amputations,” Death Cab gathered generously from its ten-record cornucopia and projected their stories with great clarity.
In a time when singer-songwriters, divas and solo acts abound, Death Cab is a refreshing example of humble unity. Dressing mainly in black and communicating actively with each other on stage, Death Cab comes off as a band in the fullest sense of the word. They convey music, not pretenses, overdrawn speeches and affected crowd pleasing. In fact, guitarist/keyboardist Chris Walla rarely even makes eye contact with the audience, and bassist Nick Harmer pays most of his attention to drummer Jason McGerr. Perhaps this is too much at times, but the underlying innocence and musical devotion implicit in these mannerisms is abundantly clear.
As the band rocked through their multi-faceted set they played a modernized cover of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Heaven” and a brilliant multi-paced rendition of “Blacking Out The Friction” among many other emotionally driven compositions. Jason, who joined the band just last year, played his heart out. Nick danced wildly and soaked up every minute on stage. Chris, jumping from guitar to Rhodes, dazzled the room with precise riffs and flowing rhythms. And Ben, sweating like a wild animal, put his soul into every note he played and every word he sang. These guys are honest musicians; yet they use their position for political and social messages as well.
Introducing “This Temporary Life,” Gibbard mentioned that the song was featured on the recently released Future Soundtrack for America charity compilation. Between songs, Gibbard also urged the audience to vote in the coming election and stressed the importance of being active and making a change. His political bent has previously come to the fore; in a recent Morphizm.com interview Gibbard said, “I think art and politics are directly related to each other, and people that deny the cross-influence are kidding themselves.” Additionally, Chris writes a regular column for the politically interested indie culture magazine, Under the Radar, and the band is involved with several charities.
Despite Death Cab’s political urgings, stunning arrangements and masterful performance, the audience just didn’t seem to be there. They were certainly appreciative, giving warm applause and an occasional cheer, but they lacked the enthusiasm and knowledge of true fans. And, quite likely, they weren’t true fans. With the release of Transatlanticism, Death Cab has seen a significant jump in popularity. Playing clubs like the Middle East just last year, they are now playing amphitheaters, stadiums and major city venues.
Though still a largely underground band, Death Cab is unavoidably reaching new territory, a strange land where die-hard fans sometimes run away and new pop fans pour in. Certainly there were many new fans at Tuesday’s show, but just how many and what that means is unclear. This next year is going to be a very significant time in Death Cab’s path, especially with rumors of major label activity that recall the recent mainstream leap of Modest Mouse. Small decisions at this stage can have major impacts. But if Death Cab can stay the way they are musically and maintain their active outlook, they may just be able to transcend the alleged indie/pop divide.