Death Cab for Cutie singer-guitarist Ben Gibbard looked happy as he announced, "We got tunes!" from the huge stage at the Nokia Theatre Monday night. As the band headlined its biggest show ever in Los Angeles, the performance served as a case study of indie rock growing extra-large gracefully.
More than ever, the songs came from a quiet place before carefully exploding, as Gibbard's voice rolled uneasily from vulnerable to searing during a 100-minute concert that was dependably brooding and hopeful. The set list spanned Death Cab's 11-year career, beginning with the new "Bixby Canyon Bridge," Gibbard standing at stage right, swaying nervously behind the microphone, as if barely containing the smoldering energy of his tuneage.
Songs from the band's new album, "Narrow Stairs," mingled easily with early work, but there was also a new willingness to erupt with noise and emotion amid Chris Walla's swirling guitar melodies. There was the full, eight-minute version of "I Will Possess Your Heart," the Seattle act's latest radio track, with gloomy ripples of bass and psychedelic guitars, piano and a torrid, creepy vocal from Gibbard: "You reject my advances and desperate pleas / I won't let you let me down so easily."
The band's current tour has included stops at many of the nation's finest rock festivals, and its latest album reached the top of Billboard's album chart -- its previous full-length effort, 2005's "Plans" went platinum. But as the band unspooled its songs of fire and sadness at Nokia, you could easily imagine these four humble rockers doing the very same set on the smallest stages in town.
"The New Year" was epic rock on a human scale, and "Soul Meets Body" was catchy, soft and punchy as Gibbard wailed: "Melody softly soaring through my atmosphere" while slashing at his acoustic, looking these days more like a '70s rocker, with longish hair, mutton chops and no glasses.
During "Why You'd Want to Live Here," Gibbard sang in the voice of someone trying to convince a lover not to move to Los Angeles ("You can't swim in a town this shallow -- you will most assuredly drown tomorrow"). It's not exactly a love letter to the city and elicited no special response from the crowd. When Gibbard tried to lead a singalong, the reaction was half-hearted and brief. "That was pretty weak, you guys," he said.
He had better luck alone with his guitar, picking and singing the desperate love ballad "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," as many in the crowd sang along: "If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks / Then I'll follow you into the dark."
With the right tunes, anything could happen.