Death Cab for Cutie Fights to Keep Their Indie Spirit

Ben Gibbard reaches far into his back catalog for two-hour NYC show

June 2, 2011 5:05 PM ET
Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie
Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

About halfway through Death Cab for Cutie's set last night at New York City's Bowery Ballroom, frontman Ben Gibbard took the stage alone, an almost eerie blue light the only illumination on stage, and launched into an acoustic version of "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," the lovelorn ballad from the band's sixth album Plans. (Their latest album, Codes and Keys, came out Tuesday.) For a moment it almost seemed like Gibbard was just another up-and-coming singer-songwriter playing to an audience of devoted fans.  

Album Review: 'Codes and Keys'

"We're Death Cab for Cutie from Seattle, Washington," he had announced after a quick opener of three of their classics: "Bend to Squares," "The New Year" and "Why'd You Want to Live Here." "Thanks for coming out to this label showcase. We're trying to get a record deal tonight." Gibbard was clearly making a joke, but it also seemed like he's actually nostalgic for the days before his band was signed to a major label and selling out small shows like this one in a matter of minutes. It's hard not to be slightly cynical about this pose – the indie rocker professing to be horribly conflicted by his commercial success – but it was also a reminder about how much Gibbard's life actually has changed since he started Death Cab in Bellingham, Washington in 1997. Now 34, Gibbard lives in Los Angeles and is married to the actress and singer Zooey Deschanel. He also got sober in 2008 and started running marathons, and so many of the songs he sang over the course of last night's nearly two-hour set – like "405," from their second album, We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes – seemed like bittersweet references to Gibbard's former life: "Misguided by the 405 'cause it lead me to an alcoholic summer / I missed the exit to your parents' house hours ago/ Red wine and the cigarettes... hide your bad habits underneath the patio."

Album Review: 'Transatlanticism'

Backed by original band members Chris Walla on guitar and Nick Harmer on bass, plus longtime drummer Jason McGerr, Gibbard – who also heads up side project the Postal Service – played on a simple stage set, with just a smoke machine and a few different colored lights in the background. Over the years, Death Cab have become emblematic of a certain brand of mainstream indie-pop, what might be termed Grey's Anatomy music – melodic and heartfelt, if relatively bland.

Gibbard seemed intent on reminding his audience that there was a time when that wasn't the case – or at least, that he has maintained some degree of his indie spirit. He opened the band's four-song encore by announcing, "This is a song we haven't played before," before he launched into "Stay Young, Go Dancing," off Codes and Keys. And he wrapped the show with the band's nearly eight-minute long "Transatlanticism," the 2003 song that was on the band's last album on an indie label. "I need you so much closer," Gibbard sang, and for a moment it seemed like he really believed it.

Set List:

1. Bend to Squares
2. The New Year
3. Why'd You Want to Live Here
4. Crooked Teeth
5. Photobooth
6. Some Booth
7. Codes and Keys
8. Company Calls
9. Long Division
10. Grapevine Fires
11. I Will Possess Your Heart
12. I Will Follow You Into the Dark
13. Title Track
14. Tourist
15. Underneath the Sycamore
16. Meet Me at the Equinox
17. 405
18. Doors Unlocked
19. Title and Registration
20. Soul Meets Body
21. Cath...
22. The Sound of Settling
23. Stay Young, Go Dancing
24. Styrofoam Plates
25. A Movie Script Ending
26. Transatlanticism

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