Don DeLillo, screeching, and tacos: A night with Death Cab for Cutie

I have a secret. I like Death Cab for Cutie. I’m a 36-year-old, married man, living in Chicago, and I walk my dog two or three times a day (I am a terrible and awful urban cliché) and I really like Death Cab for Cutie. I think Transatlanticism is a very good album with depth and glorious pop hooks, and dynamic depth. I own every Death Cab album and think each has important merit in my love of music.

But have refused to see Death Cab for Cutie in concert. The myriad of 16- through 25-year-old girls, hungry for sensitivity, dragging their boyfriends to play sing along for a two-hour Death Cab show has always prevented me from wanting to see them live.

This time, I would not be deterred. I was going to see Death Cab for Cutie. I was going to buy three or five beers and stomach the high pitched yelps, the desperate sing along, the disappointed boyfriends, and I was going to like this show.

I ventured over to the Chicago’s Aragon for Death Cab’s April 17th performance. After surviving Ra Ra Riot (bleh) and the Cold War Kids (the Cold War Kids received a ton of hype for their two albums that I always thought were short on charm. Well, their live show underscored that they are always two inches from wanting to be relevant, but probably two inches from being Matchbox 20).

Death Cab appeared on stage, complete with vivid screams from the sell out crowd. Sad teenagers, nerdy girls with glasses, and former sorority girls yelped as Ben Gibbard and boys popped into one of my favorite tracks from 2005’s album Plans; “Marching Bands of Manhattan”. A beautiful track and a wonderful opening number; the band’s lushness on full display and the Aragon’s notoriously bad acoustics were able to handle every little moment of sonic density.

But something became destructively apparent after the fourth song, “Crooked Teeth”, on Death Cab’s twenty-one song set list: nothing had changed from how I remember the album tracks.

Death Cab for Cutie has made themselves a wonderful career and they also have created a very earnest, but faithful fan base over their careers, plus; they are known for EP remixes, synth pop from side projects like the Postal Service, but as they droned on through their set list, nothing appeared to be different from what I heard on their albums to what I heard at the Aragon.

This is not to say the screaming girls (and even some desperate boyfriends) didn’t lap it up and sing along with every word, but for a band that I have enjoyed from afar, their live show lacked a true closeness. Great bands are able to take a room’s dynamics and channel the space between stage and audience with ease. Tonight’s show demonstrated no tricks, no remakes of songs desperately screaming for a beautician’s delicate touch.

For instance, a song like “The Sound of Settling” is a wonderful number, but one that has been done over and over on each of our iPods and CD players and Death Cab played that song live note for note, exactly like the way we all remembered it. And while this is cool and still entertaining; I expected DCFC to adjust our understanding of the track. Great live shows take the way we understand their music and twist it enough to make us understand it even more. How many of us have left a live show with a song we never imagined liking, hearing it live, and rushing home to listen to the track at home and discovering a song rich with flavor? This is what it means to be a live band: re-working the catalogue and giving their fans another way to appreciate the song’s depth and meaning. Death Cab has been around too long; they deserve to be allowed this flexibility and they should demonstrate their richness in concert.

The greatest sing along was for Death Cab’s “I Will Posses Your Heart” and Ben Gibbard took the stage all to himself, told a story about going to Wrigley Field and how much fun he had, and then struck the acoustic guitar, the girls screamed, and then “camp fired” the entire song. Ben swaying to the song’s rhythm, the crowd lapping up each sad note; desperate to find their own overly reflective Ben Gibbard tonight.

One idea kept popping into my head throughout the set, DCFC is playing things so safe; the lowest denominator rock show. Play to the lowest or the middle and most will leave happy, but no one’s feelings will be enormously hurt in the end. In his book, Mao II, Don DeLillo speaks of a mass marriage as a ”nation…founded on the principle of easy belief. A unit fueled by credulousness. They speak of a half language, a set of ready-made terms and empty repetitions.” Fifteen minutes after leaving the Aragon and making my way to a local Mexican diner, I remembered DeLillo and thought this pretty much summarized the night. Tonight was a wedding and everything was supremely repetitious and half-hearted, but most enjoyed the show in their own particular way, the show was not filled with desperate moments where I felt intense love and affirmation for Death Cab’s importance to modern rock history. I was not blown away, but I can’t say I was enormously hurt in the end. I just left and ate a taco.

There is no doubt that Death Cab for Cutie is an amazing band and I have not abandoned them completely. To be honest, I went home and did some reading to the band’s newest EP The Open Door and appreciated the entire sum of the six-track EP. However, I am a long time from seeing them live again.

Death Cab for Cutie is too good to walk onto stage and recreate their songs note by note. The 16-year-old girl be dammed! Ben and the boys need to freshen up their catalogue; their fans deserved to hear tracks they have grown to love altered and understood in a different manner.

This is not to say you shouldn’t grab Transatlanticism and enjoy the album’s lushness over and over, but when the show ended from the title track from their afore mentioned album, I could have sworn I had my head phones in my ears and was riding the CTA through the city. I could have saved $37.50 plus Ticketmaster fees and saved myself from the screeching.