Death Cab For Cutie @ Massey Hall

. : : April 19th, 2012 : : .

Is it still too early to be nostalgic for Death Cab For Cutie?

I’d been a fan of the band for years before they “sold out” — and I use that term not derisively, per se, but how else do you describe a band who signed to a major label, changed their sound to be more radio-friendly, and saw a jump in concert tickets prices from $18 to $56 from one album to the next? Of course, I don’t begrudge the band their success, and still like a couple of songs off each of their new albums, but it’s never been the same.

When I was in university, I always answered the typical “What’s your favourite band?” question quickly and resolutely with “Death Cab For Cutie!” For the first three years, the response was met with raised eyebrows, comically bulging eyes, tilted heads, unknowing frowns, and other such facial contortions. If I wasn’t listening to Death Cab albums in my dorm room, I was very probably listening to Ben Gibbard‘s solo split EP with Andrew Kenny. Or maybe The Postal Service‘s only album (to date). Most fans don’t remember that the latter leaked online a little over three months before it hit store shelves because they weren’t around that long. I’m not trying to take a holier-than-thou attitude about the band; I wasn’t in on the ground floor, exactly, either, but I was lucky enough to be in early.

And, to be honest, it’s hard not to feel a little resentment as a long time, die-hard fan for being ousted in favour of mainstream success. After all, hadn’t the rungs on the ladder to the success been build on backs of fans like me? The fan who tried to special order their entire back catalogue from the largest local record chain, but was told they would cost $30-$40 as “special interest imports”? The fan who made every show, bought every t-shirt, and spread the word at every given opportunity?

It was only after the band had forsaken the wonderful two-guitar interplay — that I still describe as beautiful musical conversation between instruments — for Coldplay-esque paint-by-numbers piano pop that the band reached the heights of their success. This wasn’t the Death Cab For Cutie I’d known and loved. There were mere, faint reflections of their former selves.

Need proof? The song Stability was released twice, some four years apart: first on The Stability EP (or, technically, as a bonus disc for The Photo Album before being re-released separately as the EP), and re-recorded for their major label debut as Stable Song (an awful bastardization of the title). Listen to them back to back and compare the marked decrease in sonic complexity. Yet, this inferior representation of the band is what brought them to the forefront of popular culture.

I wanted it for them, but not like this.

I continued to buy their albums for a time afterwards, and occasionally still bought the outlandishly priced concert tickets, but the frequency of their rotation on my stereo hit a drastic decline, and my interest waned accordingly.

When I heard that the band would be doing a third lap around the continent on the back of their latest album, Codes and Keys, I barely batted an eyelash. That is, until I saw they would be performing the sets supplemented by the Magik*Magik Orchestra. Those who know me know that I’m a sucker for classical string instruments, and tasteful orchestration is an established weak spot for me, musically speaking. So, in spite of a hefty $80 ticket, I purchased two floor seats to the show

The day of the show was a bit of a clusterfuck. The Massey Hall website, Ticketmaster, and virtually every other site online listed the start time as 8pm, but a chance visit to the promoter’s website (in search of specific set times) informed me that the doors were actually much earlier — 7:15pm, with Low, the evening’s opening act, taking the stage at 7:45pm. Meanwhile, it’s 7pm as I read that, and was still waiting for my friend to arrive with a ride down to the show.

Needless to say, by the time we got through the line, got to the mandatory Will Call window (for the premium floor section, anyway), and got to our seats, Low was already an indeterminate amount of time into their set. Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet set up my gear, and didn’t manage to capture any of their performance. Generally, the audience seemed won over by Low, interestingly enough. Their sonic exploration was especially impressive when one considers they are a standard bass/drum/guitar trio, but their stage presence was sorely lacking. Both front man Alan Sparhawk and bassist Steve Garrington sat rigidly on stools, book-ending Mimi Parker, who stood behind a minimal drum set. Not much to watch, but some interesting songs to listen to, indeed.

Unfortunately, the Low performance also hinted at the biggest flaw of the Death Cab performance as well: the sound in the venue. Torontonians trip over themselves, dramatically overstating the beauty and acoustics of Massey Hall, but I’m going to tell it how it really is. I don’t care how historic, important or attractive the venue is: the sound sucks. It’s awful. Like most theatres, the sound gets lost in the high ceilings. The subs push out too much low end, and at the end of the day, every show I’ve ever seen at Massey Hall has sounded roughly the equivalent of an elephant’s fart. I was somewhat hoping that, a small, quiet-ish indie-rock band performing with an orchestra would be the venue’s specialty, and they might just yet pull an ace out of their sleeve yet. Well, not so much.

Magik*Magik was mixed sorely low, and the addition of their flourishes were generally only clearly evident in the most grandiose of voluminous moments. A crying shame, as I thought their inclusion was a big draw to the otherwise terribly overpriced concert tickets.

Where the venue lacked, though, Death Cab more than made up. Sure, bassist Nick Harmer carries the bulk of the band’s energy solely on his shoulders, but the band made sure that this special tour was it’s love letter to those fans which they built their career on. Forsaking the predictably whatever-album’s-newest-heavy setlist, the band instead dug into the archives and pulled out b-sides, rarities, and little heard tracks from their first couple of albums, and interspersed them among what was, essentially, a collection of their greatest hits and fan favourites. I mean, after a brief orchestral introduction, Ben Gibbard came out and performed Transatlanticism‘s Passenger Seat. The fan boy buried in me may have squee’d.

The next half dozen songs or so were fairly typical fare, but then band delved into the little revisited We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes album for the back-to-back one-two punch of No Joy In Mudville and Little Furry Bugs; three songs later, digging even deeper and pulling out the opening track to their debut album Something About AirplanesBend To Squares.

HindsightArmy Corps of Architects, and a full-band re-imagining of Steadier Footing were other high points that were more than fulfilling to a long-term, early adopting hardcore fan like I once was. Of course, post-Atlantic signing fans may have been perplexed by almost half of the evening’s setlist, to hell with them! This tour was payback from band to fan in a very special, very unique way.

Although I confess a better venue with improved acoustics and attention the orchestration would have gone a long way in improving the experience of the evening, it’s hard not to melt when on the receiving end of such a warm, heart-filled gesture of love.

Again, Massey Hall sounds roughly like strained bowel movements, so the recording didn’t sound quite as nice as I’d hoped. I managed to emphasize the higher frequencies in post production to bring out the vocals and the strings, but still managed to let the low-end stay strong. I think the mids suffered a little bit for my tinkering, and the theatre echos are persistent throughout. That said, it still sounds pretty good. Maybe a B-? As always, you’re more than welcome to listen to the sample below and make an educated decision before committing bandwidth, but this is definitely worth grabbing if you’re a Death Cab For Cutie fan. Especially from the early 2000’s.

01. [introduction]
02. Passenger Seat
03. Different Names for the Same Thing
04. A Movie Script Ending
05. Title and Registration
06. Grapevine Fires
07. Codes and Keys
08. No Joy In Mudville
09. Little Furry Bugs
10. Death of an Interior Decorator
11. You Are A Tourist
12. [banter]
13. Bend To Squares
14. Hindsight
15. [banter]
16. Cath…
17. [banter]
18. Army Corps of Architects [abandoned]
19. Army Corps of Architects
20. What Sarah Said
21. Soul Meets Body
22. Stay Young, Go Dancing
23. [encore]
24. Steadier Footing
25. [banter]
26. Your Heart Is An Empty Room
27. [banter]
28. Monday Morning
29. I Will Follow You Into The Dark
30. Tiny Vessels
31. Transatlanticism

[info.txt // flac fingerprint ]

Bend to Squares (Live In Toronto) [MP3 sample]

Thanks to Death Cab For Cutie, Magik*Magik Orchestra, and the staff at Massey Hall.

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