The life of a music journalist is a good one. Most folks save and work hard for months to get a chance maybe once or twice a year to see a high-profile artist they love in a prominent show. Heck, maybe even only once every two years. For us music scribes, these shows are a way of life. Scarcely more than a month ever goes by where we don’t see something of that stature. On this night, it was an unusual pairing of three bands, yet all great in their own way: Death Cab For Cutie with openers tUnE-yArDs and Mikal Cronin. Yes, this was the night’s spectacle at the Hollywood Bowl, and for those that love Death Cab For Cutie, this was one to remember.
Presumably given DCFC’s decently long set and the neighborhood’s infamously strict noise curfew hours, Mike Cronin got literally 15 minutes to open the night. Along with his full band, he made good use of the time, banging out four songs in as many minute. Opener “Say” pounded with garage-rock intensity while Cronin sang, “Say, I found another way / Easy living and everything’s just fine.” And while the music itself had a gritty edge to it, Cronin’s voice was crisp and clear. Fourth song “Change” alternated between clean electric and grungier distortion while Cronin howled, “A little bit / just a little bit.”
Up next, was the curious (but delightful) addition of tUnE-yArDs. The group, normally comprised of band leader Merrill Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner hear expanded out to include drummer Dani Markham and backing vocalists Moira Smiley and Haley Dekle. It’s no secret mxdwn has loved every one of Garbus’ three albums BiRd-BrAiNs, W H O K I L L and Nikki Nack. This was an easy set to love. Though her set was only six songs long, she established right away on “Hey Life” her impressive vocal control, flawlessly jumping from a meditative percussive line to a louder, sharper emotive wail. “Gangsta” came next, taking Garbus’ fluctuating and unique melodic interplay to its extreme, and taking time to faithfully allow the song’s finale to stammer out in ever-odder time jumps and abrupt stops. Her backing vocalists proved their worth on “Sink-O” echoing her alternating melodies singing, “Peace / Peace and love / Love is waiting / For the feeling of discomfort to pass before killing .” “Water Fountain” and her biggest hit “Bizness” finished off the set, the latter a frenetic, masterful display of Garbus’ vocal finesse. Want proof? Try to sing this song’s chorus without sounding ridiculous. There’s a skill there that is just something otherworldly impossible to emulate.
Lastly, The night’s headliner Death Cab For Cutie delighted their fans in attendance with a set that largely divided up cuts from their newest album Kintsugi and their career-defining classic, Transatlanticism. They started first with Kintsugi’s “No Room in Frame” and then shifted over to Plans cut “Crooked Teeth.” The first two went for higher energy, but they followed that with slower number “Photobooth,” a rare cut dating all the way back to their 2000 The Forbidden Love EP. From there they alternated between new songs such as “Black Sun,” “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” and “Little Wanderer” and older tracks. In between those they dropped in “The New Year” highlighted by drummer Jason McGerr’s smashing of crash cymbals, “Title and Registration” a more plaintive and calm number and “No Sunlight” a mid-tempo Summer-fun song from Narrow Stairs.
After that, they dusted off “President of What?” from all the way back on their first album Something About Airplane, a playful ditty leaning heavily on keyboards. Lead singer Ben Gibbard shifted to piano for somber number “What Sarah Said,” featuring the line, “And then the nurse comes round and everyone will lift their heads / But I’m thinking of what Sarah said that ‘Love is watching someone die’.” The rest of the band left the stage after that, and Gibbard played the longing ballad “I Will Follow You into the Dark” solo. Things only improved from there. “You Are a Tourist” found a happier, lively tone and “Doors Unlocked and Open” offered a fresh song structure opting for a long intro and sparse lyrics. “Cath…” followed and received perhaps the warmest reception from the audience of any song that night. The set proper ended the only way it could, on the one-two punch of “Soul Meets Body” and “I Will Possess Your Heart.” Arguably two of the band’s best and most popular songs, the former enraptures in a brief sweeping melodic refrain replete with Gibbard’s falsetto and the latter finds the band aiming for Pink Floyd sonic heights built off of bassist Nick Harmer’s unforgettable serpentine melody.
The band wasted no time returning from the encore break. They started with Gibbard accompanied only by organist/keyboardist Zac Rae on “Passenger Seat,” making for a soothing way to start to bring the set to a close. “Marching Bands of Manhattan” came next, but it was “Transatlanticism” the set closer that struck just the right chord. It’s heartfelt refrain, “I need you so much closer” echoing out amidst the band and the audience both as the drums built to a cathartic finale. If you are a fan of Death Cab For Cutie, this was a show not to be missed. If you are only a casual fan of the band, it may have gone on a bit long, but you still would have been supremely impressed by their range and skill. They played the show like with an urgency underpinning the important event it really needed to be.