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Death Cab for Cutie + Ben Kweller

Andrew Watson
Death Cab for Cutie + Ben Kweller

Death Cab for Cutie + Ben Kweller

City: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Venue: Calvin College Fine Arts Center
Date: 2004-03-29

Death Cab for Cutie

Photo credit: Ryan Schierling
Ben Kweller
The unnaturally quiet atmosphere inside Calvin College's Fine Arts Center was my first clue, my first hint of disappointment. The Death Cab for Cutie show had apparently been moved from the cozy, intimate room I had eagerly been anticipating to the cavernous hall of echoes that doubles as the school's gymnasium. Rats. This unfortunate occurrence could be seen as an unquestionable by-product of the band's increasing fame but also an indication of what appears to be aesthetic changes within the band themselves. Their latest record Transatlanticism can indeed be looked upon as an attempt to reel in the very kids I found myself amongst this evening--the O.C. watching, dorm room file-sharing co-ed set that traditionally gets behind bands of this ilk and propels them to rock stardom. Or so they would hope. This particular tour with Ben Kweller is nothing less than a college radio jock's wet dream, with everything that's good and, more importantly, profitable about indie rock. Death Cab's Ben (Gibbard) and the other Ben (Kweller) write songs that speak plainly and honestly about things like love, loss, heartache and other topics that occupy the minds of teens and twenty-somethings. Kweller uses a more accessible approach: picture a young redheaded Tweedy fronting the Attractions -- a highly energetic, engaging performer. Judging by the set, his upcoming record On My Way seems promising -- much more developed songs, surprisingly rich three-part harmonies and Kweller's typical flair for lyrical whimsy. He looked to be having quite a time, bouncing from guitar to a tiny electric piano and back. The Vanilla Ice acoustic thing may have been a bit over the top, but when he misinterpreted a fan shouting "Rolling Stone!"(the mag) as a request to play some Stones and abruptly lept into a sloppy but affectionately raucous version of "(I Can't Get No)Satisfaction" he proved himself capable of owning a stage. It was a fun set and all, but the kids were obviously here to see the other Ben. Death Cab led off with "The New Year", Transatlanticism's lead track and single, almost as if to get it out of the way. The pogo-ing and light shoving that has become de rigueur at all rock shows these days was, for some reason, more annoying to me than ever. I mean, this is Death Cab for Cutie. These are sad kid in the bedroom songs, why-won't-she-call-me songs, songs with the kinds of lyrics and subtle musical shifts that can only really be appreciated if they are listened to closely and carefully. Sure, some of the new songs turn it up a bit. Sure, bassist Nicholas Harmer flails around and contorts himself in odd ways. Sure, the guys are sweaty and move around a bit onstage-it's not like the music is devoid of energy or fervor or whatever. But the fact is, there is no place for slam dancing or crowd surfing or whatever they call it now at gigs like this. Thankfully, some of the old (read:unfamiliar) songs settled the kids down a little. Guitarist Chris Walla is an underrated piece of the charming DCFC puzzle. His playing on "Photo Booth" and keyboard work during "Sound of Settling" all but carried the performances. Gibbard is certainly and deservedly the band's center, but Walla and drummer Jason McGerr have really announced themselves on this latest record. "We Looked Like Giants" rode out its central, layered-fuzz groove for an additional five or six delicious minutes, bass and electric piano looking horns with Gibbard's guitar drone as he Thurston Moore-d his fretboard with a drumstick. "Lightness" featured a chest rattling bass synth rumbling underneath Gibbard's manually operated drum machine. That head spinner led directly into everyone's new favorite couples skate, "Tiny Vessels", which features what I've determined to be everyone's new fave catch phrase: "You are beautiful/But you don't mean a thing to me." It was bizarre. All these young kids, hand in hand, shouting this cold, defensive lyric, somehow indicative of all those bullshit pseudo-relationships we manage to wiggle in and out of, and doing so in a gleeful manner, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to say. There is the possibility, however, that I overthink stuff like this. I mean, the song does rock. Tough call. They closed the set with Transatlanticism's title track, a gorgeous ode to the use of great sonic upsurges that take so-o-o long to gather up to their full strength that by the time they do -- McGerr pounding hard in a steady repetition, Gibbard off the piano, working his Strat, Harmer doing God-knows-what with his upper torso, Walla in still repose -- you feel at once fulfilled and exhausted. They had, with this final track, finally managed to fill this darkened barn. There's no telling how religious of an experience this would have been in a more appropriate setting, but by the time Death Cab left the stage, all the kids had their skinny little arms in the air, begging for more. My lasting image, however, will be that of the other Ben (Kweller) outside his tour bus after the show, proudly entertaining a small group of fans with a knockout lip synch-ed dance routine to Beck's disco call classic "Brenda". Performers, it seems, just like to perform. It's what they do, whether it be in a nice little room, a cold, massive arena, or a half-empty parking lot in the middle of the night.

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