Sure, Ben Gibbard may appear the atypical tough guy, but after Saturday night, one cannot dispute the fact that the lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie had his game face on. Prone to wearing his heart on his sleeve, Death Cab’s frontman seems the grown personification of that middle school dweeb. Bespectacled and resembling a teddy bear more than ever, Gibbard took to the Wiltern stage like a champ at around 9 p.m., resolute in putting on the best show he possibly could despite his decidedly pesky – though surprisingly non-debilitating – bronchial dilemma. Phlegm-ridden coughing fits be damned, the show went on without so much as a hitch and brought the at-capacity theater to applause-ridden cacophony numerous times throughout the band’s two-hour-long set.
Supporting act Stars worked wonders to pump up the surprisingly punctual crowd early into the evening. Playing a number of lively cuts off their much-hyped album, Set Yourself on Fire, the Canadian natives put on a stage show that was simultaneously understated and jaw- droppingly moving. Highlights included the angelic “Ageless Beauty,” which showcased the powerfully nostalgic voice of singer Amy Millan, and the synthesized, new wave-y “What I’m Trying To Say.”
Once Death Cab for Cutie stepped on stage, the anticipation of the crowd went from palpable to damn near suffocating. Smatterings of hipsters, giddy teenage girls and wee tykes (with parents in tow) gravitated toward the soft, melancholy chords of the show-opening “Marching Bands of Manhattan.” For those in the crowd that felt that Gibbard and his cohorts could do no wrong, the show took on the qualities of some life-altering religious sermon. Hopeful youths sang and nodded along with each ditty, mouthing Gibbard’s lyrics with unwavering accuracy and gusto. For the rest of us, Death Cab simply put on a solid and spirited stage show that further demonstrated their ability to pen songs that resonate. While the band took to performing a number of tracks off of the recently released Plans, their lengthy stint provided plenty of room for older songs to sneak their way into the set. Selections like “Company Calls” from We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes and The Forbidden Love EP’s “Photobooth” were well received to say the least.
As Gibbard jumped back and forth between electric guitars and piano, drums and oversized acoustics, he seemed to possess the unfiltered enthusiasm of someone who truly enjoys performing. Still, it was not until the set’s finale and subsequent encore that his emotional vulnerability truly began to flow freely. The purposefully shaky intro to “Brothers on a Hotel Bed” exposed Gibbard as raw and unfiltered to a crowd of thousands. The encore-ending “Transatlanticism” pulled at the collective heartstrings of the audience as hopeful lyrics were expertly laced over a swelling of cymbals and deliberate guitar plucking. Throughout the evening, Gibbard seemed to embody the desperately hopeful attitude of so many of the band’s songs. As he coughed his way through piano solos and expertly handed off one instrument only to pick up another (via a jaw-dropping game of catch-the-expensive-Stratocaster), band members Michael Schorr, Chris Walla and Nick Harmer expertly filled the gaps with an energized stage presence and seemingly natural talent for their craft.
And while certain performances seemed mildly forced – namely “The Sound of Settling,” which seemed ill-placed as a follower to the crunching chords of “We Looked Like Giants” – the majority of Death Cab’s set seemed to meander song by song with the natural progression of a well-told story. Emotionally spent by its close, the night left me with a bittersweet taste of satisfaction in my mouth as I exited the Wiltern, for if this is how a sickly Ben Gibbard performs, I’m curious to see how the show sounds after a couple lozenges and some Vics Vapor Rub.