Seventeen years ago the Washington indie powerhouse known as Death Cab For Cutie released its first album as a full four-member band — 1998’s “Something About Airplanes.” After nearly two decades of touring, a major label deal, marriage, divorce and relocation, that four piece is down to a core of three full-time members touring on the release of their eighth studio album.
Death Cab for Cutie is a band in transition, as bassist Nick Harmer admitted to Reverb last week. The band is touring for the first time after founding guitarist/producer Chris Walla left the band last year during work on “Kintsugi.” For their part, Death Cab took Walla’s departure in stride, noting that ‘kintsugi’ is the Japanese art of repairing shattered pottery — an appropriate metaphor for a band with a long history of trials and tribulations.
Wednesday night’s performance at Red Rocks left no doubt as to the repair skill of Gibbard and company. An incredibly danceable opening set courtesy of Tune-Yards began what singer Merrill Garbus called “A night never to occur again in the same formation.” Her band’s genre-busting sound of live drums, yells and ukulele tinged loops bounced readily off of the rocks. Though the near sold-out crowd took a while to get off their feet, Garbus and her band had an energy which made even the stiffest knees sway to the beat.
Soon after, the sunlight dimmed and a five-man touring version of Death Cab For Cutie took the stage in Colorado for the first time. With a quick “What’s up, Red Rocks?”, the band started the 24 song, 2-hour set with “No Room in Frame,” leading directly into “Crooked Teeth.” Soon after, a sea of cell phones emerged from their pockets to record the band's newest single, “Black Sun”.
Midway into their set, it was apparent that Death Cab had lost none of their technical prowess with the departure of Walla. Put simply, they sounded great — better than they did when I encountered them on the same stage in 2009. Harmer told Reverb that they do their best to recreate their albums live, and Wednesday night’s show was no exception. Gibbard was pitch-perfect, and the newly extended touring band was as connected as a well-practiced orchestra, even with the sudden loss of an effects pedal to the rain gods of Red Rocks. Zac Rae (of LA band Pedestrian) and Portland multi-instrumentalist Dave Depper filled out the lineup of Gibbard, bassist Nick Harmer, and drummer Jason McGerr.
Though they’ve been touring together a short time, the band has found its synch. This was clear on “I Will Posses Your Heart,” which dropped into that familiar groove immediately, drove into a five minute jam session, and ended with Gibbard throwing off his acoustic guitar and diving behind the piano. As the band’s major label debut nears its 10th anniversary, Gibbard took the stage alone for a powerful “I Will Follow You Into The Dark,” with his lyrical prowess hanging heavy on the silent crowds and calm night sky.
Though the band is touring in support of a new record, Death Cab thumbed through its catalog throughout the set. “Company Calls” and “President of What?” were followed by a four-song encore featuring “A Movie Script Ending” and “The Sound of Settling”. Death Cab ended the night with their usual long version of “Transatlanticism.”
A band in transition, Death Cab For Cutie might be, but as Harmer told Reverb, that transition can be the end of something or the beginning of something new.