Live review: Death Cab for Cutie at the Greek Theatre

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Here’s a bit of trivia about the Greek Theatre, courtesy of Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard: there’s a very small portion of seating devoted strictly to lonelyhearts. “When we were soundchecking, we saw one single seat on that side, and one single seat on the other side. When you buy them, is it like, ‘How many tickets for the Death Cab show?’ ‘One, please,’ ' he said, mock-whimpering during a break in his Seattle-based indie rock band’s headlining set Thursday night.

But don’t despair, Gibbard promised -- “We imagined that afterwards you two will meet and fall in love.’


Gibbard’s matchmaking career was easier when the audience for his slyly poppy, ambitiously arranged indie rock was comprised of a few thousand sad-sacks in flannel button-downs and ironic grandma dresses. But ever since Death Cab’s 2003 breakthrough “Transatlanticism” helped push indie rock into mainstream commercial consciousness -- along with his electro-pop side project the Postal Service -- the band has vaulted into a top-selling rock act.

This came with musical perks, like the top-shelf production work of its three recent Atlantic Records albums, including its latest “Codes and Keys.” There were personal upsides as well -– Gibbard moved to L.A. and in 2009 married the Audrey Hepburn of late-aughts hipstresses, the actress Zooey Deschanel.
So the question Thursday night (the first of a two-night stand) was whether a Death Cab that’s known the top of the pop charts and the perpetual springtime of domestic enchantment could still tap the melancholy and occasional spite that made them so beloved by the kind of fan that might go solo to its concerts.

Yes, they can, because the band’s musical ambitions have grown right alongside their audience. The songs from “Codes” were their most experimental while staying effortlessly melodic. Gibbard and guitarist/producer Chris Walla have always subverted their breezy verses and choruses with unusual guitar figures, a style somewhere between lead lines and chord-picking, and Gibbard’s knack for lyrical detail makes his songs instantly relatable.

But with a major-label budget allowing for sonic exploration, they expanded new tracks like “Some Boys” into long jams that relied on subtle shading and repetition to build to a payoff. Walla often wrangled two synthesizers and a guitar at once, and the rhythm section of drummer Jason McGerr and bassist Nick Harmer are an underrated reason why Death Cab sounds so fully realized. They made “Doors Unlocked and Open,” a long Can-style exploration that should play against the band’s strengths, into something new for the quartet –- a hypnotic, percussive exercise.

Much of the set drew from their now-lengthy catalog of songs about small things rendered widescreen by the skill of their melodies. “Title and Registration,” a song literally about rifling through a glove compartment for your car paperwork, became a wan musing on the impermanence of feeling. “Photobooth” turned a drum-machine driven scene from inside the song’s namesake bar room booth into a riff on lost youth.

The one moment where they truly owned their arena-ness, the double-drum-set extended U2 jam in the middle of ‘We Looked Like Giants’ could have made its backseat-makeout scene feel overblown, but instead just reminded the crowd how technically capable this band of Seattle moppets turned out to be.

But the band’s most powerful song turned out to be its most intimate moment. When Gibbard took the stage solo with an acoustic guitar for “I’ll Follow You Into the Dark,” he opened it with maybe his best lyric yet –- “Love of mine, someday you will die.” Somewhere, if Zooey Deschanel was in the audience, she must have felt the bite of that lyric. It was a mix of real love and real hard fact that neither rock star nor actress nor lone fan could ignore.


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-- August Brown