Outside the eerily quiet Taco Bell Arena on Oct. 18, a booming pre-recorded voice told lingering concert-goers to make their way to Entrance Two.
The normally 12,000-seat capacity stadium had been partitioned off into a much smaller space to house fans of indie legends Death Cab for Cutie. When I walked in to the arena, Ben Gibbard’s drawn-out, “I loved you, Guineveres,” poured from the stadium doors, sending a nostalgic chill ricocheting up my spine.
“Welcome to the smallest arena rock show, ever,” Gibbard joked with the audience.
Unlike their seated, sold-out show at the Morrison Center in 2009, Tuesday’s performance offered the moderate-sized crowd some legroom and a danceable pit section in front of the stage. The band also upgraded their stage set-up on this tour—giant, pixelated LED screens projected a mish-mash of abstracted images flickering in-sync with the songs.
As Gibbard sang about one of his favorite pastimes—drinking wine in paper cups—on the oddly upbeat, apocalypse-themed “Grapevine Fires” off 2008’s Narrow Stairs, shooting stars streaked across the LED screens. During “Title and Registration,” from 2003’s Transatlanticism, images of car dashboards and rain-smudged windows flitted by. And on “New Year,” the displays lit up with sparkling firecrackers and champagne bubbles. Staring at Gibbard’s swaying shadow back-lit by the glitchy images, it almost felt like the concert was being projected on the back of my closed eyelids.
At another break in the set, Gibbard confessed that he imagined the Taco Bell Arena would be tricked out with “nacho cheese cannons.”
“But I don’t think that’s the type of food you wanna eat before a rock show,” he added.
Behind me, a dude with a crew cut loudly chided: “This is a rock show?"
His comment got me thinking. As a fan who’s seen Death Cab five times over the last 10 or so years, I can say one thing for certain: The band definitely does not put on a rock show. Gibbard sings with the exact same cadence and nasaly inflection live that he does on the band’s albums. With each song, he flips his head side-to-side in a similar boyish, non-threatening manner. In fact, the rocking-ist moment Tuesday night came when Gibbard picked up a set of drumsticks during “We Looked Like Giants” and banged out a second drum line.
But despite the band's predictable nature, I’ve followed them from smoky dives to seated theater halls to giant arenas. Whether it’s nostalgia or a curious need to find out what songs make the set list, I keep going back. And besides the changing fans and growing locations, not too much is different.
Death Cab wrapped up its set with a four-song encore, which featured two tracks from 2001’s The Photo Album—“Blacking Out the Friction” and “A Movie Script Ending”—along with “St. Peter’s Cathedral,” from the group’s most recent release, Codes and Keys, and the Morrison Center show-closer, “Transatlanticism.”
Belting out the words to “Blacking Out the Friction,” my all-time favorite DCFC song—a track I’ve never heard the band play live—a wave of giddy excitement washed over me. Death Cab finally surprised me. And that rocks.