Death Cab for Cutie

by Thomas Hauner

27 October 2008

Is this what contemporary indie means, to be able to transition back and forth between a commoditized existence and an independently artistic one with relative ease? It may be.
Photos: Thomas Hauner 

The genre, or rather subgenre, of indie rock is a bemusing one—as is indie pop and any other that shares the prefix. Determining their boundaries within a commercial industry where promotion, advancement, exposure, and success are almost exclusively inversely related to financial constraints and self-sufficiency—the very pillars of the ethos that spawned indie—can be a counterintuitive exercise. The Seattle, Washington quartet Death Cab for Cutie epitomizes many of those contradictions; but not necessarily by choice.

Like many indie starlets, they paved their way into the biz through relentless and devoted recordings and performances. They put out cassettes, got noticed, and eventually found a cozy recording home in Barsuk Records, a local independent label. But those relationships can rarely endure the hype and demand of a hot new band. Death Cab signed with major label Atlantic Records, bringing their indie descriptor along with them. They have soared ever since, debuting at number one on the Billboard charts for the first time with their sixth studio album, Narrow Stairs, this spring. And to experience them in concert is to witness the very inconsistencies of the genre of which they are the pinnacle.

Death Cab for Cutie

6 Oct 2008: Radio City Music Hall — New York, NY

At Radio City they opened with “The Employment Pages”, from their sophomore record We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, a somber track full of their signature sound: Lingering and slowly strummed electric guitars grounded in a segmented but resonant beat. Drummer Jason McGerr, a powerful force throughout the show, was assertive in all his rhythms. Paired with the eerie atmospherics that dominate many of the band’s tracks, singer Ben Gibbard and guitarist Chris Walla often looked ready to hit the club dance floor.

But the dejected passion of their emo subject matter relented. They coasted through songs like “Your Heart is an Empty Room” and “The New Year”; McGerr’s driving beat the only constant to prevent the songs from completely wallowing in insecurities and self-pity.

“Summer Skin” and “Soul Meets Body”, both repertory staples from their Grammy-nominated album Plans, were crowd favorites. This was somewhat remarkable considering the audience generally eschewed reaction in favor of texting and taking pictures. In fact, there was a lengthy struggle amongst those wanting to stand up and dance and those preferring to sit and tap their feet. It was only during the eleventh song, “I Will Possess Your Heart”, that the standers prevailed and the band could finally feel like it was performing the decibel-raising bass-throbbing rock concert it was playing.

That the audience came to life during “I Will Possess Your Heart” was all the more surprising. An epic eight and a half minute jam of a song—its very structure trumping the concise tendencies of indie rock—it took serious endurance to just make it to the drum entrance. Starting the song on electric guitar Gibbard tossed it 10 feet to his left (a stagehand appeared to catch it quickly) before taking his place at the keyboard, propelling the intro ahead for several more minutes in anticipation of finally singing the first verse near the five-minute mark. The song’s ethereal guitars, undulating keyboard, and trenchant bass created a mystic yet tense sound, the audience waiting for Gibbard’s boy-next door vocals. 

Gibbard’s voice, in general, sounded particularly strong and in tune. At times, though, he was leading a sing-along more or less, particularly on “I Will Follow You into the Dark”, which he performed solo. At that point in the show it was still questionable whether anyone had any excitement to match Gibbard’s or the rest of the bands’.

For every steadfast fan that appeared to remain from the group’s DIY origins, there was an equal fan willing to document, not experience, the entire experience. And for every fourth fan there was a willing chaperone. Some seemed too willing, probably because they came with a date instead of anyone to look after.

The crowd did show incredible energy at the end of their set, though, escorting the band back onstage with a wave of shrieking screams—young adolescent girls were a strong demographic. The band responded, playing an incredible four encores before ending the night with “Transatlanticism”.

At one point in the night Gibbard reminisced about the group’s last New York appearance. Referencing their infamous summer show at McCarren Park Pool (the now retired ground zero of outdoor indie rock shows) and its flash thunderstorms, which ended the gig early, Gibbard warned of flying beer tents and soaked concertgoers. He was glad to be back, and sheltered–by Radio City’s gorgeous Art Deco confines no less. I could only help notice the irony that this show, in this setting, with this entirely different crowd in this entirely different borough (we’re talking Midtown Manhattan vs. Williamsburg, Brooklyn) could somehow possibly serve as a supplement or substitute. Is this what contemporary indie means, to be able to transition back and forth between a commoditized existence and an independently artistic one with relative ease? It may be. But in an age of ubiquitously free record distribution and consumption we can’t hold it against a band for earning a living.

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