Is there a science to picking a day to start a tour, or is it all some big random coincidence? Last night's Death Cab for Cutie show at the Ellie Caulkins was sold out, and it had been for a while, actually. This was the opening night of the band's spring jaunt around North America -- having recently returned from a string of shows in Australia, New Zealand and various Southeast Asian locales -- and while a Death Cab show is always a pretty big deal, this was something special.
Rather than rock an arena, Death Cab is playing the Ellie Caulkins, and befitting the venue, the guys have brought along the Magik*Magik Orchestra, or at least part of it: six violins and two cellos. Magik*Magik might sound like a perfectly suitable name for an indie-band opening act, but it's actually "a modular orchestra with a focus on collaboration." If you happened to catch the Death Cab for Cutie "Storytellers" episode on VH1, they were lending the string section for that, as well. The magikal sonic spectacle came later in the evening, however.
Upon entering the grand, vaulted space of the Ellie's auditorium, attendees were greeted by a stage set that was the pinnacle of understatement. The red curtain was closed, and in front of it stood a few cushioned metal chairs -- the kind frequently seen in church halls and banquet rooms -- with a keyboard, modest drum kit and two guitars lying atop a hard case. If there hadn't been so many people milling about, you might've assumed they'd wandered in on a rehearsal. But soon it would all make sense: Any additional setup would've seemed pretentious accompanying the introspective, dirge-like qualities of "slowcore" veterans Low.
For those live-music fans more accustomed to the later starting times of club shows, it was a dire mistake to show up an hour after the posted show time -- unless you wanted to skip the opening act. The lights dimmed promptly at 8 p.m. to a scatter of cheers and whoos from the crowd. As the first note drifted out from the speakers -- a sustained, jazz-flecked guitar strum -- the stage was awash in dusky purple lights with glimmers of yellow and orange highlighting Low's Alan Sparhawk, who was seated stage left with his guitar.
It makes sense that Low hails from Duluth, Minnesota, because their sound is an ode to the contemplative nature of the Great Plains. It is the sound of an introspective look across wide flat spaces, where a person can feel how small he is and how distant he is from other people. Their set builds slowly upon itself, a bird's-eye view of the same dynamic range that makes their songs so powerful. The trio is able to provide a surprising depth of sound, which suddenly transforms quiet moments into explosions of noise.
It's a testimony to the technical side of their minimalist approach. While there are only three, they add and subtract layers of vocal harmony, the synchronization of tom and bass note hits, and changes to Sparhawk's effects pedals to vary the urgency of any given moment. "It's our first night with these young boys and it's been tough so far," Sparkhawk joked between songs -- a dig at Low's opening for a band several years its junior. "Maybe later I'll tell you about it."
Maybe the "tough" part he was referring to was the lack of instrument stands (even the keyboard rested on one of the metal chairs), maybe he was kidding; or, maybe he was referring to some trouble with the technical set up. Rumor has it that there were some headaches involved in getting everyone's sound to fit properly within the Ellie. They were coming from larger venues and had to do some adapting. If there were issues, it had all been handled by show time. The sound throughout the evening was impeccable.
There's no doubt who the crowd came to see -- Death Cab has a loyal following. As the lights dimmed at 9 p.m. sharp, the crowd (which is now at capacity and at least two drinks deep) erupted into wild applause. It was a bit of a fake out though because none of the members of the band were actually on stage, rather it was just eight people dressed in black, seated stage right holding violins and cellos. The conductor gave a signal and they commenced with a slow, sweeping progression.
Frontman Ben Gibbard's entrance drew another round of cheers, and he took a seat at what appeared to be a control booth of sorts, lined with amplifiers, a glass panel (to minimize sound bleed from the drum kit immediately to his right) and some synthesizers. The thing could've been the cockpit for a musical spaceship, the indie-pop version of the mothership.
As Gibbard added piano to the high brow nature of the string section, there was genuine, palpable excitement from the crowd. Whether you like the act or not, there is no denying the band's magnetism. You don't survive fifteen years without building a devoted following -- a following that stretches from middle age hipsters to 'tweens, judging by the crowd. Not only has the band survived, it has stayed relevant.
As the rest of the group came out and took their places, the anticipation built up to a boiling point, and for the next ninety minutes, the crowd followed Death Cab on a journey from melancholia to ecstatic revelry. Gibbard's vocals were crisp and clean, the outfit sounded tight and the addition of a string section just made everything that much more epic when it swelled. Seriously. There were moments that were Arcade Fire-esque in stature once a string section got involved (even though Gibbard and company were around long before anyone heard Funeral.)
"This is us at our most formal," joked Gibbard, acknowledging the opera house setting and the band's all-black dress code. "I thought about talking with an English accent."
The juxtaposition between Low (a three piece in front of a curtain) and Death Cab plus Magik*Magik (fifteen people with an extravaganza of lights) was noticeable, but the two shared a mastery of range. While Low's range tends more toward dynamics, the Death Cab set spanned a broad emotional range, massive climaxes crashing into quiet, sadness that drew everyone forward to the edge of their seats. Low was like an emotional primer for what's to come.
The set spanned a mix of old and new stuff. The new stuff probably drew the biggest cheers from the crowd, but the older material seemed to have more people singing along. The later the evening got the louder the crowd got, and the higher the frequencies of lady squeals became. "This is the coolest effing thing I've seen," shouted one lady from an upper level during a quiet moment.
About an hour in, Gibbard stepped quickly to the mike and uttered "thank you very much," at which point, the band exited the stage. The crowd went nuts, their thirst for bittersweet musical moments clearly not yet slaked. Given the nature of the venue, the crowd had alternated between sitting and standing throughout the set. By this point, everyone was on their feet, and would remain so for the remainder of the encore.
The band had traded in the trappings of epicness and now stood alone at the front of the stage with two acoustic guitars, an acoustic bass and a small drum kit consisting of a floor tom, snare, crash and small hat. "Jason looks like he just stole that drum kit from Tito Puente," Gibbard joked about the setup's conga-like appearance thanks to the tall, narrow tom.
Without orchestra or electricity, the band demonstrated that they can bring the same energy. The orchestra returned for one more song, and then the band dispersed back to their original stations, including Gibbard in the musical cockpit, and the group unleashed "Transatlanticism" for the final song of the night, which was incomprehensibly amazing. An already a great song, with the strings added, it became transcendent. (By the way, Death Cab uses that song as the closer pretty often, so if you hear that you can pretty much count on the show drawing to a conclusion. So savor it.)
While Gibbard commented that it was "opening night," there was no signs of weakness from the band. No jitters. No missteps. Just a perfectly executed evening of indie-pop adventure. If this is a harbinger of what's to come for the rest of the tour, it's worth going to check them out.
Personal Bias: I think The Postal Service got the better end of the deal in the band name department, but Death Cab got better songs.
Random Detail: The guys sitting next to me got free tickets to the show because they were in a study abroad program with one of the members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra. One of them told me that when the group isn't doing awesome things like touring with Death Cab, they do private concerts at retirement communities around Napa as a way to keep the bills paid.
Death Cab for Cutie Ellie Caulkins Opera House - 4/11/12 Denver, CO
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