Scalding Hot, Brimming with Energy, and from Seattle

Starbucks?  Guess Again.  Death Cab for Cutie Raises the Bar Again

by Scott Melcher

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On Thursday, July 10th, Death Cab for Cutie personally delivered their newest album, Narrow Stairs to Amsterdam.  Front-man Ben Gibbard, an eloquent and articulate poet, revealed his latest stash of stories and portraits of life, depicted as clearly as paint from a brush.  His canvas: the once deserted dairy factory we know as the Melkweg and the ears of 1,000 eager listeners.  With the album cover design draped behind them, stories of desire, expectations, hardship, dreams, and destiny filled the auditorium.

ImageAs I tend to do at most concerts in the Netherlands, I sought refuge on the balcony wrapping the auditorium.  The Dutch are, on average, the tallest in the world.  If you’re like me, not being particularly tall, the floor only offers spectacular views of the backsides of curly blond heads.

After a warm welcome from the crowd, the band started things off quite fittingly with “Bixby Canyon Bridge”, the opening track of Narrow Stairs.  A song said to be written about American novelist, Jack Kerouac.  The song’s main character, perhaps Ben, seeks to retrace the steps of Keuroac as described through his so-called autobiographical alter ego, Jack Duluoz, in the 1962 novel, Big Sur.  Jack suffered a nervous breakdown and secluded himself to a cabin in the Bixby Canyon of Big Sur in an effort to get beyond his troubles.  The song is really about searching for an epiphany, some hidden but grand message from the experience.  However, the character finds nothing and heads home dissatisfied, mirroring the experience of Jack.  Bixby Canyon Bridge opens softly with a series of delicate arpeggios and gradually builds into a powerful jam session.  It was a perfect opener to get the crowd attentive and excited to climb more of Narrow Stairs offerings. 

 

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Photograph by Jonathan Abshire

 

The music of Narrow Stairs carries more weight than their previous five full-length releases. Guitarist Chris Walla describes it as having teeth.  This is a departure from a sound that while exceptionally well-crafted and diverse, tended to have a more cheerful and vivacious approach.  The new songs have more edge, explore darker themes, make use of more musical experimentation, and, well, rock harder.  The album, released in May, has achieved both critical acclaim and commercial success – the album landed #1 on The Billboard 200.  In my humble opinion, the band has created greater and greater pieces of work as their career has progressed and that’s starting with a high base.  While Death Cab for Cutie has always been a band known for great live performances, Narrow Stairs tipped that idea on its side, stood up on top, and radiated its splendor throughout the auditorium grander than ever. 

In total, the band played six tracks from the album.  Other numbers were: “Long Division”, “Grapevine Fires”, “I Will Possess Your Heart”, “Cath…” and “No Sunlight”.

“Cath…”, a catchy song about a girl feeling the weight of the world in the form of expectations made for one of the night’s most memorable moments.  I could paraphrase the song for you, do my best to give you the gist, but I could never communicate its qualities so eloquently.  Here’s the story of “Cath…” as told by Ben:

Cath…
She stands with a well intentioned man
But she can’t relax with his hands on the small of her back
As the flashbulbs burst, she holds a smile
Like someone would hold a crying child

Soon everybody will ask what became of you
Your heart was dying fast and you didn’t know what to do

Cath…
It seems that you live in someone else’s dream
In a hand-me-down wedding dress
With the things that could have been are repressed
But you said your vows and you closed the door
On so many men who would have loved you more

Soon everybody will ask what became of you
Your heart was dying fast and you didn’t know what to do
The whispers that it won’t last roll up and down the pews
And if our hearts were dying that fast
they would have done the same as you
I’d have done the same as you

 

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Bassist Nick Harmer

Throughout the evening the band mixed in songs spanning all six of their albums.  Additional highlights included band favorite “We Laugh Indoors” – I say this because they’ve played this at every show I’ve seen them play – fan favorites “Title and Registration” and “Soul Meets Body” and the finale, an explosive rendering of “Transatlanticism”, a song about a relationship divisively separated by the Atlantic Ocean.  An ending in which drummer, Jason McGerr, gave the audience every last ounce of his remaining energy. 

 

As with most great shows, the end always seems to come too soon.  The end is near is signaled when the band walks off stage, the first time.  The inherent encore responsibility remains.  A responsibility I think the band handled in a superb manner.  Their first exit did feel early, but our patience was rewarded with an additional five songs hereby erasing any worries of an overly premature exit.  A five song encore is a sure-fire method to send the masses out the doors with grins.    

While it will likely be some time before Death Cab for Cutie visits Amsterdam again to deliver their next round of stories, the band left the audience with a feeling of great anticipation for days when the soles of their shoes are worn down a little more.  I have a feeling this cognitively charged quartet’s path continues up from here.

 

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Photograph by Jonathan Abshire

 
The full set-list:

Brixby Canyon Bridge
New Year
Why You’d Want to Live Here
Crooked Teeth
Long Division
Grapevine Fires
Movie Script Ending
Company Calls
Title Track
Soul Meets Body
I Will Follow You into the Dark
I Will Posses Your Heart
Cath…
No Sunlight
We Laugh Indoors
Sound of Settling
Marching Band of Manhattan

Your Bruise
Title and Registration
405
Your Heart is an Empty Room
Transatlanticism

Other photographs by Scott Melcher

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