"What a dump this place is," quipped Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard, perched atop the magnificent stage at New York's Radio City Music Hall last night. Then, unsure if people caught his sarcasm, he added, "No, really, this is an honor."
That anxious, awkward moment capped the first third of Death Cab's show, as both band and audience took their time acclimating to the legendary room. After the first five songs -- an admittedly slow build-up that included "The Employment Pages" and "We Laugh Indoors," two of the band's older tunes -- most of the 6,000 patrons at the sold-out gig remained seated, but not in a docile, complacent way: They were totally engaged, singing and bobbing atop Radio City's plush cushions.
You can't blame them for staying seated, and not just because Death Cab fans are a little older than they once were: Ben Gibbard's songs are innately personal yet equally immersive, a rare form of rock'n'roll that deserves to be considered carefully. Whether he sang about "the night you left" on the delicate "Summer Skin," or how he couldn't think of anywhere he'd rather be "to watch it all burn away," on the somber "Grapevine Fires," it was easy to spot engrossed faces, relating their own experiences to Gibbard's.
Still, it was only a matter of time before engrossment turned to rapture, and the fannies finally rose when bassist Nick Harmer lurched into the shadowy bassline of recent single "I Will Possess Your Heart." Any jitters onstage had evaporated, and any bracing break-up or lost love remembered by the crowd was overcome.
From that point forward, the night turned into a triumphant one for a band that's clearly at a career apex. Songs from this year's Narrow Stairs carried the second half of the set, particularly "Cath," the tale of doomed marriage, and set-closing "Bixby Canyon Bridge," both of which created enough momentum to carry over through encore-opener "Technicolor Girls," a for-the-diehards rarity from the 2000 EP, Forbidden Love.
But it was the encore-closing duo of "Marching Bands of Manhattan" -- a total "Hello Cleveland!" moment when played in NYC -- and Gibbard's epic saga of intercontinental love, "Transatlanticism," with its looped refrain, "I need you so much closer." Even in such a cavernous space, such a "dump," Gibbard quite easily got his wish.
Check out more pictures from last night on page 2.