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Live Review and Photos: Death Cab For Cutie, June 8, 2011, El Rey – Los Angeles, CA



To get to the point of headlining venues the size of the Hollywood Bowl and festivals like Sasquatch, which Death Cab For Cutie have both done, a fair share of dues need to be paid. But, it seems like Death Cab For Cutie’s rise to stardom has been more organic than most, filled with years of playing small venues as they did at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles on Tuesday night. And, while their draw has increased over the course of their last few albums, not to mention the canonizing of frontman Ben Gibbard’s album with side-project The Postal Service, Death Cab has never seemed like over-the-top rockstars (though their Hollywood Bowl show did feature a full orchestra and pyrotechnics). Thus, seeing them in a club-sized building seemed like the ideal way to take in the band, as they launch into what I imagine will be a long stretch of touring behind their recent release, Codes and Keys.

This assumption proved to have truth to it, but also illuminated something most don’t think about with regards to Death Cab. Because of the personal and emotional nature of their music, watching them with a small group felt predictably intimate, as everyone in the audience could make out every facial expression while Gibbard sang and participate in the shared glances the band-members exchanged on the stage. But, from a pure performance standpoint, the show was a testament to the job Death Cab does every time they take the stage. The Seattle-band never plays up or down to their audience, regardless of the size or the prestige of the show; rather, they put their all out there each time they take the stage. In playing the El Rey, the band still put on a nearly two-hour set that would have been suitable for a large amphitheater, and whereas Gibbard acknowledged that it had been nine years since they last played the room, the band played as if they had never needed to perform anywhere larger.

Because of the implicit high demand of such a date with Death Cab For Cutie, tickets were limited to two per person and only available from will call. Upon purchase, a hand-stamp was given along with the ticket, ensuring that any scalping of the tickets would be difficult, if not impossible. And the atmosphere inside suggested that the room was full of fans, even extending their respect to opener The Lonely Forest, a four-piece that records on the label imprint of Death Cab multi-instrumentalist and producer Chris Walla.

It wouldn’t take long of listening to The Lonely Forest to make the connection to Death Cab For Cutie. The group oozes sincerity and confidence, and their tunes are instantly accessible. Also, like Death Cab For Cutie, it would be difficult to feel any ill-will towards the band, as their tunes caused near-immediate foot-tapping, aided by the sheer enthusiasm of the group. Singer John Van Deusen seemed at ease in front of the Death Cab fans, wagging his tongue between verses and interacting often with his fellow bandmates. But, the band’s true MVP is drummer Braydn Krueger, whose tendency toward unpredictable percussion patterns managed to transform the fairly straight-forward power-pop into something that commanded the audience’s attention. Sure, The Lonely Forest are not reinventing the OC-soundtrack sound, but they fit pretty perfectly with the headliner, which is always pleasant in a world of mish-mashed bills.

Death Cab For Cutie took the stage to a strange setup, with drummer Jason McGerr placed in the back corner, stage-right, primarily to accommodate the piano that was placed next to him. They then made their way through a surprisingly long stretch of older tunes, including the always ferocious “Why You’d Want To Live Here,” a biting tribute to their host city that Gibbard concluded with “I answered my own question.” Besides that, stage banter was left to a minimum, mostly consisting of “thank you”s and technical discussions. However, the funniest moment came before “I Will Follow You Into The Dark,” when Gibbard mentioned that he usually plays that song on behalf of the band while they leave the stage, something Gibbard noted has happen “2 or 3 hundred times.” Gibbard went on to say that until recently, he had never thought to ask what they did when they left the stage. And, they won’t tell him. On cue, a voice shouted from backstage “it’s fucking awesome back here,” causing a laugh from the audience and Gibbard alike.

Death Cab paraded some of their strongest tunes for the Los Angeles crowd, with the end of the set feeling like a hit parade. “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” invoked a full-audience singalong, while “What Sarah Said,” a nice surprise, saw one of the biggest ovations of the night with its opening piano lick. But, the best moments were saved for the band to show off as musicians. “I Will Possess Your Heart” is pure pleasure to watch unfold, with Gibbard beginning the tune on guitar for the intro and Nicholas Harmer hammering his most distinctive bass-line, only to later move behind the piano for the eventual vocal aspects of the song. Many of the new tunes found Chris Walla working some electronic-mixer thingy that looked like an old cash register and provided the Codes And Keys cuts, in which the title track and “You Are A Tourist” were the standouts, their texture.

As the set reached its inevitable conclusion, the long-time closer “Transatlanticsm,” the band milked the slow-burner for all its worth, erupting to a near noise-jam only to drop away and leave only Gibbard’s voice and the lingering sounds of the completed crescendo. There was some irony to Gibbard’s repeated plea of “I want you so much closer,” as it is unlikely that the audience will get much closer to the band for a very long time. Still, it was nothing short of a privilege to catch an undisputedly huge band in such an intimate setting, and comforting to know that the next time you see Death Cab For Cutie at a much bigger venue, you will get the same commitment to quality in terms of both sound and effort.

Setlist:

Title Track
New Year
Why You’d Want to Live Here
Crooked Teeth
Photobooth
Doors Unlocked and Opened
Long Division
Grapevine Fires
Codes and Keys
What Sarah Said
I Will Possess Your Heart
I Will Follow You into the Dark
You Are A Tourist
Underneath The Sycamore
Company Calls
Company Calls Epilogue
Portable Television
A Movie Script Ending
Soul Meets Body
Cath…
The Sound of Settling

Stay Young, Go Dancing
Title and Registration
Transatlanticism


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