What they lacked in setlist creativity Death Cab more than made up for in style.
Oregon Zoo Amphitheatre, Portland, OR
Just over a year ago, Death Cab for Cutie released Thank You for Today, a middling collection of songs that made one wonder how much juice the band still had in them. Just under a year ago, though, the band played the Keller Auditorium, and their live show paints a much different picture: despite the departure of longtime member/producer Chris Walla, the band as a live unit still breathes life into even the stalest of their new material. On the same day as their most recent Portland performance, they released the promising Blue EP, which doesn’t do much to shift their current creative direction. But the EP does manage to do enough to instill a little bit of hope. Their performance at the Oregon Zoo Amphitheatre is still part of the seemingly endless tour for Thank You, but as a longtime Death Cab apologist, it was hard to pass up a chance not only just to see them again but also to visit the Zoo just once more before the summer ends.
But first, there was Car Seat Headrest. The front of the stage was packed with gleeful youths in Twin Fantasy shirts, with one fan holding a handmade sign requesting “Beach Life-in-Death” (there was also what appeared to be a retirement-age man with a sign requesting “America (Never Been),” which was cool as hell). I’d never seen the band before and have found myself perplexingly immune to a lot of Will Toledo’s angstastic charms. But in the flesh, they have big Sex-Bob-Omb energy in the best possible way. Despite looking like he might ask you to buy him beer, Toledo has a shocking amount of stage presence. He stood dressed in all black with a huge mop of hair, rocking what looked like something between sweatpants and Hammer pants as the band plowed through a bevy of killer tracks. Their closer of “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” was one of the best moments I’ve had at the Zoo this season, feeling genuine excitement for what the band is going to look like in a decade.
As Death Cab for Cutie got into the swing of things, it felt like we were watching a sneak preview of that future. Despite being the smallest band I’ve seen headline the Zoo stage this year—Broken Social Scene reached 11 people onstage, eight for Feist—the five members seemed to occupy far more space. Part of the joy of seeing big bands at this venue is that it strips most of them of high production pageantry, but that didn’t stop Death Cab from using a comparatively large array of light pillars, a truncated version of what they used at their Keller performance.
Ben Gibbard (also decked out in all black, but with a more recent haircut) has come a long way since Something About Airplanes, but his manic energy still remains. He plays his guitar as though it’s fighting him, proof that he’s a dyed-in-the-wool emo kid who gained a stupid amount of success from his brand of mope rock. His banter was dorky and unsurprisingly animal-centric: he talked about being allowed to pet an owl as a consolation for not being allowed to ride one of the Zoo’s beloved elephants. Later, after playing incel anthem “I Will Possess Your Heart,” he mentioned them again: “We were told the elephants respond positively to low frequencies, like kick drum and bass… After that last number, they must be getting freaky deaky!” Near the end, he also asked if he could be an honorary Portlander, using the presence of hometown hero (and Walla replacement) Dave Depper as a bargaining chip. His lyrics may have gotten blander, but on stage he’s still charming as hell.
The biggest stumbling point was the band’s setlist. We got plenty of beloved songs, like “Passenger Seat” (which they used to open the show with just Gibbard and keyboardist Zac Rae onstage), “Long Division,” and “Grapevine Fires” gracing the set. But the oldest they went was “Styrofoam Plates” from The Photo Album, with even Something About Airplanes staple “President of What?” absent. With the exception of The Blue EP‘s “Kids in ’99,” admittedly a really killer song, they didn’t stray very much from what we saw a year ago, a disappointment for the oldheads in the crowd.
What they lacked in setlist creativity Death Cab more than made up for in style. Seeing the band up close reveals a refreshing level of tightness, by no means due to the rigidity that often accompanies acts that reliably play large venues, but because at least three of them have been playing together for over 20 years. This helped them stretch the bridge of “Styrofoam Plates” with grace, and stretch “We Look Like Giants” into a mammoth, 10+ minute monster of a song, which also saw Gibbard sneaking in a chorus from Car Seat Headrest’s “Killer Whales” just to bring the evening full circle. It wasn’t self-indulgent or over the top—it was just old friends exploring a groove together, only in front of a couple thousand people. Though Thank You for Today left me doubting the future of Death Cab, watching this display of power put those worries to rest. If only they could just channel that for their next album.