Denver's stately Ellie Caulkins Opera House hosted the kickoff of Death Cab for Cutie's intimate theater tour last night, beginning a 22-date jaunt that finds the indie-pop band collaborating with San Francisco's Magik*Magik Orchestra.
The string octet, which is supporting the band for the entirety of the tour, is a smart addition to Death Cab's rich melodic sound, especially since they're sampling only lightly from their most recent album, Codes and Keys, in favor of a more buffet-like approach to their indie-to-major catalog. Leader Ben Gibbard seems determined to showcase tunes that will push the new orchestral arrangements to the fore, instead of trotting out another new-album-plus-greatest-hits setlist.
A lanky, moppy-haired Gibbard took the stage in silhouette after a brief overture to the Transatlanticism sleeper "Passenger Seat," bathed in blue backlight and breathing softly into the mic over the song's dreamy notes. He slow-burned into "Different Names for the Same Things," and the rest of his band soon joined him to speed the crescendo, each member dressed in black and seeming acutely aware of their classical environs.
It didn't take long for Gibbard and diminutive Magik*Magik director Minna Choi to share a few smiles, but despite the warm exchange, it was clear that a lot was riding on this opening. The seated, sold-out crowd was dotted with more tweens and retirees than your average club show, and the band leaned more toward buttoned-down professionalism than rock & roll abandon, affecting a sort of politely feverish Ed Sullivan Show image with their tight mannerisms and colorful stage lighting.
The domino effect of audience members rising to see over the folks in front of them took hold during "Codes and Keys," though it quickly subsided when Gibbard eased into the pensive "No Joy in Mudville." "Part of the fun of doing a tour like this is we get to play some songs we haven't done in awhile," Gibbard said before playing the tune, and it was clear what he meant as Magik*Magik's languid arrangements enveloped "Mudville's" downtempo beat.
Gibbard isn't known for burying his emotions, at least in song, but it was reassuring to hear him gush over Death Cab's slowcore opening act, Low, who delivered a typically monk-like set of calm harmony and clanging guitar. "Words really can't describe the feeling that we get to share the stage with Low," Gibbard said as he launched into "Soul Meets Body," a crowd-pleaser. "They're one of our favorite bands of all time, so this one goes out to them." Back up went the teenagers and the tipsy, 30-something fan boys and girls, who were right to stay on their feet as Gibbard ended the main set a song later with the buoyant Codes and Keys closer, "Stay Young, Go Dancing."
An encore was all but ensured, but the band at least mixed it up with an acoustic version of "Steadier Footing," which found drummer Jason McGerr smacking an upright trap set practically shoulder-to-shoulder with his mates. "Jason looks like he stole that drum kit from Tito Puente," Gibbard quipped, in one of the night's few unscripted moments. An unusually vulnerable "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" highlighted the six-song appendage, contrasted by another one of the night's few moments of abandon, a cacophonous "Transatlanticism" that gave the sleepy show the slap it needed to continue on for another 20-plus dates.
"Passenger Seat / Different Names for the Same Thing"
"A Movie Script Ending"
"Title and Registration"
"Codes and Keys"
"No Joy in Mudville"
"Little Fury Bugs"
"Death of an Interior Decorator"
"You Are a Tourist"
"Bend to Squares"
"Army Corps of Architects"
"What Sarah Said"
"Soul Meets Body"
"Stay Young, Go Dancing"
"I Was a Kaleidoscope"
"I Will Follow You Into the Dark"