Death Cab for Cutie has had a peculiar career. Starting out with a repertoire of humble indie rock songs, the band made a left turn around the time it signed to Capitol Records into a huge, highly produced sound that is reminiscent of U2. At that same point, they saw huge growth in record sales and concert attendance. At this point, with this amount of success, they’re one of the few Indie Bands that can hardly defend the title “Indie” that they are generally assigned.
All this would typically point to a band being a sell-out; cashing in credentials they earned for a contract with a major label, and only put just enough effort into their new music to make it appear as though they’re trying. But as Death Cab for Cutie proved at the City Market on Monday night, this is hardly the case. In the face of success, their sound has changed, yes. But the band has continued to evolve into something more complex, not collapse into a purely commercial operation.
The band isn’t a natural fit for live shows. They’re best appreciated recorded, with gentle but sharp production that doesn’t require loudness to be any more immediate. So it’s refreshing to see that the band didn’t resort to any typical concert shenanigans to make the show entertaining. It was a quiet set, and even their most propulsive songs – the lightly punk ‘Long Division’ failed to rouse the crowd. Quite the opposite, the audience never seemed so stirred as when lead vocalist Ben Gibbard played the simple “I Will Follow You In the Dark” with no accompaniment other than his own acoustic guitar.
What drives the band’s sound, and what sets it apart from similar acts, is a talented rhythm section. The band lets them shine by keeping the guitars low in the mix, something that, in addition to the chill sound in most of their songs, makes for a quiet set. That made for a kind of calm not ideal for a show played to thousands at an outdoor venue not built for concerts. Were it in a more intimate setting, the band could have shined. As it was tough, Death Cab held their own out of their element. Dull moments weren’t avoided, but the band was able to make the best of it.
The very appropriate opener was Telekinesis. Both he and the headliner originate from Seattle, and have had albums been produced by Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla. Telekinesis is only one man, Michael Benjamin Lerner; but live Lerner sits behind a drum set and sings while being backed up by a bassist and guitarist. Lerner’s voice is a throwback to late 90s – early 2000’s emo, something delicately throaty like Jimmy Eat World, but the overall sound of the band is consistent with today’s eclectic, poppy Indie rock, with a little bit of modest quirk balanced out by a sound drive in their live act. That, with a band that wasn’t afraid to hop up, down, and around, made for an opener that easily got the crowd to take notice.
by Ian McFarland