Live Review: Death Cab for Cutie at Berkeley’s Greek Theater (7/11)

Photography by Krista Kahl

The night is gonna fall and the vultures will surround you,

And when you’re lookin’ in the mirror what you see is gon’ astound you.

– Death Cab for Cutie, “Monday Morning”

There is a doppelganger problem at Death Cab for Cutie shows. You may be waiting for the bathroom or carefully guiding a couple of beers back to your seats – then you see him. You doubt your eyes, because how could Ben Gibbard be up on stage singing the harmony to “Codes and Keys” while simultaneously standing in front of you? You start to survey the crowd around you, and like an episode of The Twilight Zone, the number of Bens keeps growing. There’s one smoking an American Spirit and browsing his phone. There’s another angrily gesturing at the man running the chicken tenders stand. They are infinite, this sea of Gibbard look-alikes, and they are everywhere.

The doppelganger epidemic is, however, not something new. Death Cab for Cutie has long played to crowds of people who look like Death Cab for Cutie. But what’s interesting to see is the natural progression at hand. As Gibbard’s aesthetic has evolved – losing a few pounds, putting his plaid shirts out to pasture in favor of more muted fabrics, ditching his glasses – so have his fans. The transformation isn’t literal of course (although there are plenty of people who are dead ringers for Gibbard milling around the Greek on Saturday night), but it speaks to a band that has kept the same fans with them through the long haul.

Unlike, say, Green Day, whose fanbase grows younger by the single, the people who amass to see Gibbard and company tear it up, moody indie-rock style, are the same people I’ve been fighting for parking spots at Death Cab for Cutie shows since the pre-Transatlanticism days. Many of us were in high school when that album catapulted Death Cab from an indie darling into a music mainstay. We played “Title and Registration” in our parents’ cars right after we passed our driver’s tests. Now, 12 years later, we are pushing 30 and finding fewer and fewer of the bands who once populated our first mix CDs worth seeing live, let alone still playing. Say what you will about Death Cab’s changing sound – made all the more prominent with the exit of core member Chris Walla last year – but this is a band that has kept its fans, me included.

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Before the crowd is greeted by their headliner, they are treated to the highest caliber of opening act: veteran indie rockers Built to Spill. Later in the night, Gibbard confirms the band’s importance to his own career. “It goes without saying that this band wouldn’t exist without them,” he proclaims, before dedicating “I’ll Follow You into the Dark” to Doug Martsch and his bandmates. High-profile bands opening shows for other acts has always been a risky proposition. On the one hand, it’s a great bang for your buck to get to see two bands you follow for the (ever-rising) price of one. This premise has led to some incredible bills, like when Blind Pilot and Andrew Bird opened for The Decemberists when the latter group toured behind The Hazards of Love.

Of course, this formula can also fail, which, at least at the onset, appears to befall Built to Spill. At the start of their set, the band is met with indifference from a chattering crowd who arrives promptly but seems to treat the group on stage as an extended pre-show intermission as opposed to a primary source of entertainment. I have the sobering experience of hearing more than a few people realize for the first time that Built to Spill is even on the bill as they make their way into the venue. As the sun finally sets late into the group’s set, the focus seems to rightly return to the four men on the stage. Then they give their thanks, take leave, and the time for Death Cab has arrived.

And the news reports, on the radio

Said it was getting worse

As the ocean air fanned the flames

But I couldn’t think of anywhere I would have rather been

To watch it all burn away

– Death Cab for Cutie, “Grapevine Fires”

Death Cab for Cutie is what I will term a “forever” band in my life.

Since I first wondered over to the secondary stage at Live 105’s BFD in 2004 to watch them play based on a friend’s insistence, Death Cab has always been in my rotation. When my first serious girlfriend and I broke up senior year of high school, I listened to Transatlanticism endlessly. I partied with friends in college while essays went unwritten to Something About Airplanes and The Photo Album. When my mother finally lost her battle with cancer, I had Plans to help me through my grieving [note: my tracks of choice did not include “I’ll Follow You into the Dark,” but rather the one-two punch of “Marching Bands of Manhattan” into “Soul Meets Body”]. My wife can attest that I’ve played “Bixby Canyon Bridge” from 2007’s Narrow Stairs for almost as long as we’ve been a couple. For me, that album will always be associated with the beginning of our relationship.

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They aren’t my favorite band. Lately, Death Cab hasn’t even been the world’s easiest band to defend. I’m not a huge fan of their latest album, Kintsugi, or its predecessor, Codes and Keys. But none of that really matters. There are bands, be they Blink-182 or Radiohead, which we simply find at the right moment in our lives. Who they are to everyone else is secondary to what they represent to us. Their music hits us where we need it, and in thanks, we carry them with us. Life has no soundtrack, but I like to think memories do. Some of mine are backed by Death Cab, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I need you so much closer

I need you so much closer

I need you so much closer

I need you so much closer

-Death Cab for Cutie, “Transatlanticism”

Music journalism can be an ideal career path for the lonely. We watch shows with only ourselves for company, free to experience the performance without distraction, but confined by our isolation. The vast majority of the time this issue is fleeting – the music takes you and so you forget your lack of company. But every so often, the music will take you and reinforce how alone you are in the moment.

Such is the case on Saturday night as I stand behind a couple curled on a blanket in the grass that covers the upper third of the Greek Theater. They rise when Death Cab takes the stage, and I watch as they huddle together to share whispered asides; as the woman goads her partner to dance with her by displaying her moves, which consist mainly of jutting her knees out and sliding her ankles back and forth, as she nestles her knit cap-covered head into his shoulder during the quieter numbers of the set.

I watch them not as a voyeur, but as a jealous party. My wife and I have seen Death Cab together on at least one prior occasion. Standing at the back of the Greek, Ben Gibbard far below and the happy couple far closer, I realize that the act of listening to love songs that mean something to you apart from the person you love amounts to some kind of masochism.

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In “The New Year”, when Gibbard sings the coda, a series of lyrics I always find delightful and profound, I turn to sing the words to her:

I wish the world was flat like the old days

Then I could travel just by folding a map

No more airplanes, or speed trains, or freeways

There’d be no distance that could hold us back.

…but there is only air.

I see her later that night. This is not a tragedy. What strikes me about the experience is that, as music fans, we need our “forever” bands. We should celebrate them. They reconnect us back to the story of our lives through a series of songs. At the end of the day, I simply saw a band I like play a decent but unremarkable show. But I also learned something that I doubt I would’ve gleaned from seeing any other group.

It wasn’t Death Cab’s performance that brought me to my revelation, but the experience of seeing their music again. Their words are beautiful, but what those words mean to me is something even more precious. It reminds me of high school, of heartbreak. It takes me back to college, to the wild mistakes we are given a small window to make. It recalls the dark nights and bleak mornings of sorrow that accompany profound loss. It conjures the stunning moment where I asked an amazing woman to spend her life with me and she forgot to say no. I feel all these things, and more importantly, I miss having someone to share them all with, even for a mere two hours. As it turns out, some shows are just better when you have someone to kiss.

Setlist:

No Room in Frame

Crooked Teeth

Photobooth

Black Sun

The New Year

The Ghosts of Beverly Drive

Grapevine Fires

Codes and Keys

Little Wanderer

No Sunlight

President of What?

You’ve Haunted Me All My Life

What Sarah Said

I Will Follow You into the Dark

Everything’s a Ceiling

You Are a Tourist

Doors Unlocked and Open

Cath

Soul Meets Body

I Will Possess Your Heart

Encore:

Binary Sea

Why You’d Want to Live Here

Marching Bands of Manhattan

Transatlanticism

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