Death Cab For Cutie @ Phoenix Concert Theatre

. : : May 18th, 2011 : : .

I credit Death Cab For Cutie with my interest in indie pop/rock music. A friend and fellow taper turned me onto them with a copy of his recording of a recent show they played at the *tiny* local venue, The Reverb, usually reserved for little-known local bands. It was shortly upon the release of their third album, The Photo Album, which virtually single-handedly changed my musical interests. Death Cab For Cutie became THE band I listened to, almost non-stop. New friends and acquaintances as a freshman in university would raise a confused eyebrow when I always listed them first upon discussion of favourite bands.

I didn’t get a chance to see them live until their follow-up and break-through album, Transatlanticism. The band performed in Montreal in what is, as far as I’m concerned (although not billed as such), a triple headliner show featuring HaterHigh staples, The Long WintersNada Surf, and Death Cab For Cutie. I was pressed up against the stage, front row and centre, for the entire set. A great view, but as it turns out, the worst place in the venue for sound — especially if you like vocals. But I went back to my apartment in Ottawa with each bands setlist, a couple of guitar picks, a handful of new albums, and a deep, fulfilled love.

I’m glad I had the experience, because the band quickly blew up large after that. Their next album, Plans, also their major label debut, turned Death Cab into a radio-friendly commodity. I was happy for the little band from Bellingham that was so integral to my musical psyche, but I felt them slipping away. I travelled again to Montreal to see them on the first leg of the Plans tour, but something felt lost. The intricate guitar play that sounded like the musical equivalent of an engaging, intellectual conversation between two brilliant minds was gone, and replaced by boring, Coldplay-esque piano pop. Yawn. By the second leg of the tour, the band had graduated to large, over-priced theatres and small arenas. The band that I saw for $18 in 2003 (with Nada Surf and The Long Winters, nevertheless!) were now charging $60 in 2005.

I couldn’t begrudge the band their success, but my interests begin to migrate elsewhere. I must admit, when I heard the band was doing a short pre-release tour for their upcoming album, Codes and Keys, and launching said tour in Toronto at the Phoenix Nightclub, I was intrigued. I knew this would probably be my last chance to catch the band at so quote-upquote intimate of a venue. Case in point, the band would be returning to play the outdoor Molson Amphitheatre in just over eight weeks. As intrigued as I was, I still couldn’t bring myself to remember the on-sale time for tickets, which sold out promptly. Tickets on Craigslist were going for ridiculous sums, and I put all notions of the excursion on the back-burner.

When guitarist and producer/engineer Chris Walla retweeted a message from the opening band The Lonely Forest offering entrance to a handful of random winners whom send an e-mail, I shrugged and tried my luck. Imagine my surprise when I received an e-mail only an hour or two later confirming a guest list spot (plus one) for the show! I scurried to find a companion to join me with such little notice, and met up with my best friend, (also named Jason).

We arrived at the venue some ten minutes after the doors were to have opened, and the line literally sprawled blocks down the street. I could hardly believe my eyes. This little band was once playing The Reverb how long ago? Well, I guess time had gotten away from me — it was the nine year anniversary of that show only a few months ago. We decided to find a parking spot a couple of blocks away, and chatted for three-quarters of an hour to pass the time and give the venue time to start letting people in.

When we got back, there seemed to hardly be a dent in the queue. The line was massive, still wrapping around the venue and well up the street. So we headed to Gabby’s for a quick drink at the bar. We managed to pass another three-quarters of an hour, but I really wanted to catch the Lonely Forest — who were kind enough to get me into the venue. I was disappointed when we got back from Gabby’s that the line was still lengthy, and it was clear I was going to miss them completely.

After some time, we’d progressed toward the front of the line and it quickly became clear just why it was so slow-moving: there were no tickets for the event whatsoever, and it was essentially a giant will call list. It took about two minutes, once getting to the doors, to be fully interrogated and finally let in. Really?! What a rigmarole! No pat down, though, so getting the gear in was thankfully easy. Now that we were in, the next challenge was finding a spot. By this time the room was full, so we found a spot just off the right wall about halfway back. It was clear that the ticketing fiasco had cost us the chance to see The Lonely Forest, which upset me. After missing opening act and another favourite, Cursive, here some months ago, I really should have learned my lesson. Come to the Phoenix ungodly early. Suffer the line no matter how daunting.

We weren’t situated long before Death Cab took the stage and immediately started jamming the uncharacteristically meandering We Will Possess Your Heart. It was an apt first selection. Just as the song is propelled by strength and energy of Nick Harmer and Jason McGerr’s rhythm section, so was the entire set. Except moving back and forth from centre stage on guitar and rear stage to take over (ugh) keyboard, Ben Gibbard was almost entirely restrained — at least until the coda of the evening’s closer, Transatlanticism, which provided a much appreciated spike of energy. Walla played with more pizzazz than he showed.

The band was admittedly generous with its selection of older cuts, although only bringing out one song each from their first two discs and EP. Predictably, the set was more focused on the later mainstream singles, but also allowed for slightly more obscure cuts like Why You’d Want To Live Here and What Sarah Said felt like at least like a little more than lip service.

The Phoenix is one of my least favourite places to see bands. The sound has never been great, but for the first third or so of the set, the vocals were all but inaudible (EQ’ed to a decent level on the recording, though!). This was corrected as the set drew on, but Chris Walla’s lead guitar was the casualty of the compromise. The band apologized repeatedly for its loose performance, but I didn’t pick up on any clear mistakes — whether that’s due to the quality of the band of the LACK of quality of the venue, I’m not certain.

The new songs sound…well, a lot like the major label output the band has in its oeuvre. Parts of it were catchy, but nothing grabs me the way A Movie Script Ending or Photobooth did in the summer of 2002. It wouldn’t be fair for me to expect more; the band is just going home with those who brought them to the dance, so to speak. But it was a nice trip down nostalgia lane, and, having had my fill, I can now avoid the $60 face value tickets to the upcoming outdoor (shudder) show in July.

  1. I Will Possess Your Heart
  2. The New Year
  3. Why You’d Want To Live Here
  4. A Move Script Ending
  5. [banter]
  6. Some Boys
  7. Doors Unlocked and Open
  8. Company Calls
  9. Long Division
  10. Grapevine Fires
  11. [banter]
  12. Codes and Keys
  13. [banter]
  14. What Sarah Said
  15. I Will Follow You Into The Dark
  16. You Are A Tourist
  17. Soul Meets Body
  18. Meet Me On The Equinox
  19. Underneath The Sycamore
  20. Cath
  21. Crooked Teeth
  22. Sound of Settling > [encore]
  23. Your Bruise
  24. Title and Registration    > Photobooth
  25. Transatlanticism

[info.txt // flac fingerprint ]

Your Bruise (Live In Toronto) [MP3 sample]

Thanks to Death Cab For Cutie, The Lonely Forest (SO SORRY, GUYS!), The Phoenix, et al.

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