On a cold, rainy D.C. night the 9:30 Club became a cathedral of warmth and happiness, one that reached deep into the imagination. For many in attendance this show was more sacred than church and more meaningful than any homily or sermon. It showed on their faces and echoed through the rafters.
First, there was Stars—a Montreal band with a proper following of its own. Part of a burgeoning (or burgeoned) Canadian music scene, Stars’ latest release, Set Yourself on Fire has generated a lot of buzz. The crowd arrived early and in large numbers for the opener—a rare feat indeed.
For those familiar with the band I can only imagine that the lush pop orchestration and bright melodies was everything they expected. For those (such as me) that had heard only the buzz, the show was an equal treat (although I will admit that the slow motion dancing confused me a bit). My confusion was short-lived, however. How is it possible to be confused in the face of such terrific pop music?
I was completely taken in by the alternating male/female vocals of Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan. Both “Reunion” and “Ageless Beauty” were terrific. It was all smiles and hugs, and the good mood carried over into Death Cab for Cutie’s set.
Following a cordial “hello”, the gentle hum of Chris Walla’s organ and Ben Gibbard’s pristine vocals began with “Marching Bands of Manhattan”. As soon as the opener came to a close, the hammering rhythm of Jason McGerr began “We Laugh Indoors”, this in turn was immediately followed by “The New Year”, again without so much as a pause in the music.
It’s hard to say just how good these songs were; I was having a hard time listening critically; I was too enthralled. I suspect many of my fellow concert goers were having a similar experience: I noticed a number of dropped jaws and awestruck eyes. Finally, after “The New Year”, the band took a break and thanked the audience.
Much of the set’s songs were from Death Cab’s latest release, Plans, but there were frequent trips into the past. “Summer Skin” was followed by “Photobooth”, which sent the crowd wild. This homage to summer was followed by “President of What?” from Something about Airplanes.
As Death Cab continued to weave through the set, which included “Different Names for the Same Thing”, “Company Calls,” and “Company Calls Epilogue”, I was amazed—one after the other, each song was emotional and beautifully heartbreaking. Each song seemed to make the audience feel as though Gibbard was singing directly to them; that every note was completely their own.
It occurred to me at this show that Gibbard and Death Cab write songs that immortalize watershed moments. Whether that moment for each of us is the moment love begins or ends, passing romances, death or chance encounters, there is a Death Cab for Cutie song about it. And everyone at the 9:30 Club was reached by a song like that at some point of the show. Even the ever-stoic bartenders at the 9:30 Club perched themselves atop the bar to see the band performing their favorite numbers.
Before closing with blistering versions of the bombastic “We Looked like Giants” and the crowd-pleasing “Sound of Settling”, Death Cab gave the crowd the highlight of the night: “What Sarah Said”. Slow, patient, and haunting, Gibbard’s voice was sublime. So moving was this moment that at the mid-point of the song, during the poignant pause following, “I thought about what Sarah said, that love is watching someone die,” not a single audience member even stirred. This is not an exaggeration; only the gentle piano and a single car passing outside through the rain were audible. It was an absolutely perfect moment.
The encore was equally impressive. “I Will Follow You into the Dark” was met with the same reverence as “What Sarah Said”. The only difference was the ever-so-slight murmur of the audience singing quietly along to the chorus. “405” followed by “Prove My Hypotheses”, closed the show and the crowd erupted in applause.
In today’s rock landscape it isn’t hard to become cynical about the state of music, but a show like this restores lost faith. It serves as a reminder that good, honest music still exists and that the connection between musician and fan can be a very real thing.