There aren't many bands that could bring droves of twentysomething hipsters to snake around the Greek Theatre in scorching hot weather. But then there's Death Cab for Cutie.
Thanks to Plans, the band's first major label debut, Death Cab's popularity has risen to those great heights singer Ben Gibbard once crooned about on another side project. But the Seattle quartet didn't arrive to Berkeley last Saturday to indulge in past successes. That was apparent when the band leaped right into "Bixby Canyon Bridge," the first track from their latest album, Narrow Stairs.
The band also didn't shy away from treading the musical dessert that is "I Will Possess Your Heart." The epic piece, clocking in at more than eight minutes long, follows in the band's philosophy of letting a song unfold itself organically. It begins with the bass slowly picking up speed, and naturally boils to the brim with keyboards, drums and, finally, vocals. Despite the exercise in patience, the Berkeley crowd reveled in its pure progression.
As frontmen go, Gibbard comes across as having an unimposing, even modest presence. Throughout the evening, he will sway back and forth, cradling the guitar like a child. He will not venture off from the microphone stand. He will jog to the keyboard if the song calls for him. It's not that he feels a certain restraint, it's that he won't overwhelm his audience with all that jazz. He knows why they are here. Simple has always been Death Cab for Cutie's strong, retro corduroy suit.
The band did reach back into its catalog to dust off some old favorites like "Your Bruise" only to remind us that its sound wasn't always so crisp and clear. But the members seemed in their element playing raw, wrinkled classics. "Why You'd Want to Live Here," for example, was welcomed by older fans. Still, it would have been more enjoyable to see the band accommodate more of its pre-2005 fan base.
Death Cab for Cutie is best served slowly. One can easily be left behind, trying to keep up with the song's conceptual depth. As the evening grew darker, the set list focused on slower ballads. By the time "Title Track" hit its first note, the band was bathed in midnight blue light, the smoke machine was turned down, and Death Cab was in its element.
The the tempo slowed down a bit on fan favorite "Soul Meets Body." Walla's vocals reinforced Gibbard's, but never trespassed or overshadowed him. Equally, Walla's work from guitar to keyboards was met with a cool confidence.
Death Cab's opening band shared the same self-assurance.
Let's face it: Many opening bands can be a drag. At best, they are mildly interesting and, at worst, inconvenient filler. Either way, it's usually an ideal time to use the restroom or purchase five-dollar water.
Oakland's Rogue Wave wouldn't be content with being the boring trailer before the blockbuster film. A fist-pumping Dominic East led the quintet to the stage to a stronger cheer than usual. The energy wouldn't take a downturn from there. The band started the evening with "Love's Lost Guarantee," a dreamy, soulful jam punctuated with Patrick Abernethy's bass work. It was clear from the start that the band complemented Death Cab's sound perfectly.
Lead singer Zach Rogue, in skinny tie and classic Converse, put his rich sandpapered voice to good use on "Bird on a Wire," a song about broken relationships and women with more baggage than Southwest Airlines can accommodate. Like Death Cab, Rogue Wave has a knack for covering darker subjects using illuminating sensibilities.
"We're from the Bay Area," the vocalist reminded the crowd. But there was no need for introductions. Feeling right at home, the band kept the mood lighthearted and carefree. At one point, the members dropped their instruments for drumsticks, beating mightily right along with drummer Spat Purgeon, prompting flashbulbs from the audience.
The ruckus of having all five members on drums finally transitioned into the beginning of "Lake Michigan," the highlight of their set.
Swept up by the positive energy, the crowd provided the vocals for "Harmonium." Zach Rogue conceded the microphone to the audience, who promptly finished the song for him. "It's good to be home," Rogue crooned.
The stage, on the other hand, was a complicated mess. The boxes, cables, and the feeble attempt of covering them with black sheets was distracting. Set up like a disorganized recording studio, there was a real anxiety that someone with a misstep might be kissing Greek Theatre gravel. Thankfully, no one did. But that didn't stop East from pushing away and kicking a few of those speakers and boxes away when beginning "Publish My Love." Perhaps messiness is the price one pays for having to manage as many different guitars and basses as they do. And given the superb sound, the chaotic stage was worth it.
They ended the forty-minute set they way they began: With a fist pump in the air. But even a solid performance from Rogue Wave wasn't enough to fully satisfy the audience's appetite.
The night belonged to Death Cab, who slowly traded its newly recorded songs for older favorites. "This next song is for all the lovers in the audience," Gibbard quipped. "I've always wanted to say that. Is it okay if I said that?" It's in the band's nature to second-guess itself, or at least overanalyze everything. "I've thought about saying it before," he continued. "But the word lovers sounds kind of gross as it came out of my mouth. But there's really no going back from it." The social awkwardness from the band is no pretense. Gibbard breaks the cumbersome moment with an acoustic version of "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," as the lovers in the crowd echo each sentence back.
There was no going back to the dressing room, either. "It's just a formality," the vocalist reassured the crowd after he stated he sung his last song. There is such a thing as an encore, after all. Gibbard was at his most animated with "Title and Registration" and "No Sunlight," which prompted him to raise his guitar like a cup of wine and celebrate the end of a successful performance. The band ended the set with a vibrant version of "Transatlantacism."
Narrow Stairs lacks the sense of urgency that most solid rock albums are born with. It's certainly telling that Death Cab ended its encore with four outstanding tracks — none of them found on its latest album.
These intimate songs seem better meant whispered quietly between lovers. Last Saturday, the Greek Theatre was all ears.
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