You've Haunted Me All My Life: Death Cab For Cutie Live

Greek Theatre; Berkeley, CA, USA; 7/11/15

by Jason Warburg

Fear of disappointment—that’s always been the biggest obstacle to me seeing Death Cab For Cutie live, despite their status as one of my favorite bands of the modern era. The potential pitfalls seemed obvious; Death Cab frontman Ben Gibbard’s songs are finely wrought poems about death and loneliness, distance and sadness, isolation and alienation. How could music with that sort of emotional palette possibility translate in a setting that’s all about an exchange of energy between artist and audience based on a shared emotional connection?

And then there are the arrangements… Death Cab’s songs are typically complex studio creations crafted with layer upon layer of guitars and keyboards and loops and effects. How could you authentically recreate that sound with just four or five guys on stage—and without recently departed co-founder/guitarist/keyboardist/producer Chris Walla?

I pondered all of this yet again during Built To Spill’s twilight opening set at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, a noisy, herky-jerky, at times chaotic 40-minute romp that felt a bit like “Neil Young plays the Dinosaur Jr. songbook.” It’s wonderful that Gibbard and company got to share the stage with one of their musical heroes, but it didn’t feel like there was much common ground musically between BTS’s bruising, willful discordance and Death Cab’s soaring, supple melodicism.

dcfc2_500All was put right when Death Cab emerged to deliver a masterfully balanced setlist that rewarded the dedication of longtime fans with a trio of early nuggets while treating more recent recruits to the familiar songs that joined them to the cause—and putting a smile on the face of at least one skeptic who fretted over how these songs would translate live. I’m going to go with: stunningly beautiful and blissfully cathartic.

As one might expect, the set was heavy with new tunes from recent album Kintsugi, covering seven of its 11 tracks, starting with opener “No Room In Frame,” a sharply realized Dear Jane letter to Gibbard’s recent ex Zooey Deschanel (“Was I in your way / When the cameras turned to face you? / No room in frame / For two”). But the new tunes were scattered throughout the evening rather than bunched, making a strong case for how well they fit into the group’s overall catalog.

Early highlights included a propulsive take on the rather power-pop flavored “Crooked Teeth” from Plans and a rousing presentation of the ringing, anthemic “The New Year” from Transatlanticism, sandwiched around early-career highlight “Photobooth” and another Kintsugi number, the brooding, intense “Black Sun.”

Both the more experimental and dissonant Narrow Stairs and the more keyboard-heavy and underappreciated Codes And Keys were well-represented in the heart of the set, with terrific renditions of “Grapevine Fires” and “No Sunlight” sandwiching the rippling “Codes And Keys.” Later on, the one-two punch of “You Are A Tourist” and “Doors Unlocked And Open” powered the band toward the tense, hypnotic main set-closer “I Will Possess Your Heart,” perhaps the most compelling song ever narrated by an obsessive stalker.

In between, the emotional highlight of the evening came on a pair of simpler, starker tunes. First, as if presenting my daughter with a personal birthday gift, they played her song (“What Sarah Said”), before Gibbard followed it with a simply stunning solo acoustic “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” that left the audience in the palm of his hand. And there lay the answer to my earlier fears—listening to a song about pledging to follow your lover into oblivion when they die is an even more moving experience with 8,500 strangers singing along.

The group’s new touring lineup—which includes band members Gibbard (guitars & piano), Nicholas Harmer (bass & occasional keyboard) and Jason McGerr (drums), plus touring mates Dave Depper (guitar & keyboards) and Zac Rae (keyboards & guitar)—proved more than capable of recreating these at-times complex tunes, varying the band’s look from three guitars and no keys, to two and one, to three keyboards, depending what the tune called for.

As Death Cab regrouped at the end of the main set, Sarah and I talked about what a great encore the long, dreamy, steady-building “Transatlanticism” would be, and we were once again not disappointed. Closing out the generous four-song encore, it was simply stunning, a winding, thrumming seven-and-a-half-minute masterpiece that built to a magnificent crescendo. We turned to each other when the last note faded and agreed that they absolutely should NOT continue after scaling that pinnacle… and they didn’t. Well played, Mr. Gibbard. Well played indeed.


Set list

No Room In Frame
Crooked Teeth
Black Sun
The New Year
The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive
Grapevine Fires
Codes And Keys
Little Wanderer
No Sunlight
President Of What?
You've Haunted Me All My Life
What Sarah Said
I Will Follow You Into The Dark
Everything's A Ceiling
You Are A Tourist
Doors Unlocked And Open
Soul Meets Body
I Will Possess Your Heart

Binary Sea
Why You'd Want To Live Here
Marching Bands Of Manhattan


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