Death Cab for Cutie with Frightened Rabbit
- Article by: Jamie McCormick and Megan Pacella; Photos by Bryson Leach
- Posted: 08/16/2011
Two years ago, when Death Cab for Cutie played the hallowed halls of the Ryman Auditorium, Ben Gibbard proved that he had class. Although he is arguably one of indie rock’s favorite frontmen, Gibbard took the side stage at the Ryman, leaving bass player Nick Harmer to take center stage.
Last week, when the foursome returned to Nashville to play a somewhat lackadaisical crowd at the half-filled Bridgestone Arena, Gibbard returned to his post in the spotlight – but he didn’t leave his class behind.
In the refreshingly chill air of the arena, a several thousand-fan crowd took a break in the middle of the workweek for the catchy pop rock of Death Cab. When an energetic performance by the Scottish opening band Frightened Rabbit drew little energy from the crowd, we began to wonder how the rest of the evening would pan out.
Slightly disheveled and very comfy looking in that folky sort of way, Frightened Rabbit lumbered out to start the show. Unassumingly, lead vocalist Scott Hutchison simply said, “Hi, we're Frightened Rabbit,” then launched into the set. All sluggishness instantly dissolved into a swirling sea of pop rock.
With discordant tones and unusual rhythms, “Frabbit” exposed the folk soul giving life to their driving pop tunes. Though much more standard rock than Flogging Molly, and without the bluegrass currents, they share that glimmer of something authentic and old and ethnic, a sound gleaned from ancestors and made new.
There were enough instruments on stage to equip a large ska band, and everyone sang background vocals, including one angelic voice straight out of a boys' choir.
Most impressive, though, was the drumming of Grant Hutchison, who turned out one of the most intricate and explosive performances we’ve heard in quite a while. His all-encompassing trap set included a synth drum for that something special, and even the air around him for when he needed an emotional rather than a sonic beat.
Before discarding his guitar and walking off stage while the rest of the band milked the tones of the final track for every last drop, Scott Hutchison and his Frabbit friends left the audience with one piece of advice: “You won't find love in a whore,” he said, and the song left everyone with a laugh to sustain them through the break.
Thankfully right on cue at 9 p.m., Gibbard and company stepped in to bring the energy. Through the darkness, a surging bass hook set the rhythm while red lights slowly began to illuminate the stage. As the band struck the first chords of bass-heavy “I Will Possess Your Heart,” the standing portion of the crowd pushed forward with newfound energy. Still, one couldn’t help but notice that the rest of the arena appeared to be at a chilled-out singer-songwriter set rather than an ambient rock show.
Seattle-based Death Cab erased the earlier folk feel with their Northwestern stylistic sensibilities – Nicholas Harmer honoring Johnny Cash in all black, thumping a black bass, and Chris Walla rocking a red shirt and guitar, all neat and put together. Their music had its shirt tucked in too, displaying plenty of the long instrumental sections and repeated lyric lines that inhabit Death Cab's comfort zone.
Gibbard, who must have either had one too many Red Bulls or been channeling Jeff Goldblum, bounced all around the stage and kept his entire body constantly moving, occasionally pulling away from the mic too soon and losing the ends of his lines. But his energy was palpable.
After a few songs, Gibbard addressed the crowd, acknowledging that playing to a half-empty arena felt a little strange. He brushed it off by saying, “Nashville, we are in an arena. This is rock music. This is arena rock.”
Following that statement, the band broke into “Your Bruise,” their first single, which they released nearly 14 years ago. For the almost 30-somethings among the crowd, this was a rare treat. Not to disappoint newer fans, however, the band followed that up with a performance of “You Are A Tourist,” from their latest album, Codes and Keys.
Gibbard dove into his emotions and fleshed them out, leaning on the episodic vignette style, so rare in pop rock, that has made Death Cab popular. With “Grapevine Fires,” they took the tempo down a few notches and highlighted the tale of a wildfire on the West Coast while digital rain fell in the background. The song showed how resonating Gibbard's voice can be, and he really shone when backed with a simple rock recipe, a slower pace and a soulful story to tell.
A crowd favorite by far, the entire arena sung along to “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” showing their appreciation with a smattering of lighters and hundreds of recording cell phone screens. The band dedicated the song to their friends and openers, Frightened Rabbit, drawing a sing-along from the crowd.
Gibbard toyed with the audience a little bit, making them wait for the final chorus by coming back to the mic and just humming the melody instead of singing the words. But he finally gave them what they wanted, and the subsequent applause was thunderous.
At the end of the last song, Gibbard pulled an Owl City-style switch to drums, where he and drummer Jason McGerr had a knockdown, drag out duel, and everyone came out a winner. But even after a set that showcased most of the bands’ entire catalogue, the energetic half of the crowd was not satisfied and screamed until the guys made their way back to the stage. Only then did everyone get on their feet.
Called back to duty and hungry after nearly two hours of bounding around, Gibbard optimistically called up to the suite level and asked that someone kindly pass down some nachos, preferably with olives and jalapeños. And though a screaming group of girls waved their lighted cell phones in acknowledgement, the food never made its way down.
The encore ended on a beautiful note, slowly and with Gibbard on keys, and Death Cab sent the crowd back into the night sated on a meal of solid pop rock and elaborate storytelling that had lasted for three hours. The encore included “Title and Registration” and a reinvention of the rock-waltz “Styrofoam Plates.” As the band closed out with “Transatlanticism,” the crowd shouted thanks and whistled with approval.
For a band that has been gaining followers for more than a decade – and has managed to uphold an artistic reputation in the indie arena – Death Cab didn’t leave fans disappointed. Combining seasoned favorites like “What Sarah Said,” “Cath...” and a seven-minute rendition of “We Looked Like Giants” (during which Gibbard took to a second set of drums to drive home the percussion-heavy mix), Death Cab managed to appease everyone’s musical palate.
View additional Brite photos here.