By J Mattew Cobb

Last time the Seattle, WA-based indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie played Birmingham was on a warm May 5 in 2017 underneath the steam shed of Sloss Furnaces. Slowly approaching the two-year anniversary of that date while also supporting their recent studio album Thank You for Today, the five-piece band made their way back to Magic City on April 10 inside the confines of the 2,800-seat BJCC Concert Hall, a space they’ve visited back in 2009.

For guys with an incredibly storied slate of albums on hand and a beloved repertoire that includes five #1 Adult Alternative Songs and a few offerings that’ve touched the bottom shelf of the Top 40 (“Soul Meets Body,” “I Will Possess Your Heart”), the visuals in the background behind them left more to be desire. There was no video backdrop, no band logo on display, just a solid black curtain backdrop and 8-foot tall LED light beams surrounded them, which acted like a complimentary laser show playing in tandem to Death Cab’s biggest rhythmic summits, or at least what frontman and guitarist Benjamin Gibbard had to offer vocally.

After an charming opening set from the Shara Nova-anchored My Brightest Diamond and a lengthy 30-minute intermission, their set opens with the cool Rhodes-carrying indie rock of “I Dreamt We Spoke Again” (from their latest disc), which ultimately fills the room and forces the sweet gathering of the modestly-full room to rise to their feet. Epic blue lights then spray the stage and casually strokes the back of the room as the dreamy and slightly distorted vocals of Gibbard places the room in a My Morning Jacket-meets-Phoenix haze.

Gibbard is a no-frills hipster that doesn’t show off much personality and rarely speaks in between songs. And that’s okay; the cool, tranquil vibes of their most euphoric ballads (“Autumn Love, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”) and the jammy sophisticated segments of some songs are pretty much suffice for the gathered cuties. But when he does speak and interact with the fans, he gives off all the right vibes that he’s playing to a sea of friends. “If you feel like standing up and moving, we don’t mind,” he utters right before “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” a delightful strummy tune. And when the beats drop on “Long Division,” the crowd claps along, revving the band up with glee. It’s the music that the fans are hungry for, not necessarily extravagance. Besides strumming in place most of the whole time, shifting from left to right, Gibbard does walk up to Jason McGerr on drums, interacting him from time to time. We even find him jumping on a stack of raised keyboards nestled behind him.

Within their two-hour set, they’ve fired up an impressive nineteen tracks, many of them with very little breaks in between. “What Sarah Said” is poignant, hammered by the emotional phrasing of “who’s gonna watch you die” and a showcase of jazz drum tinges. There’s a type of innocence and vulnerability in Gibbard’s voice on the Elton-esque “60 & Punk” when he shows off some of its heaviest imagery: “The curtain falls to applause and the band plays you off.” It’s the perfect setup for the crowd favorite, “I Will Possess You Heart.” After its lengthy four-minute instrumental opening, an abundance of arena-primed handclaps echoes across the room. And then with a stroke of rock concert magic, the radiant chorus (“Gotta spend some time, love/gotta spend some time with me”) becomes an instant crowd chant.

The diversity of their music was also put to the test with movements into Arcade Fire synthdisco (“Black Sun”), New Wave magic (“Northern Lights”) and breezy psychedelic rock (“We Looked Like Giants”). By the time they slide into “Soul Meets Body,” the audience acts as a mass choir while giddy girls jump with sheer ovation. The band then walks off the darkened stage but is encouraged to return by a thunderous summation of cheers. For the encore, Gibbard returns alone – acoustic guitar in hand – for a resounding hymnlike singalong of “I Will Follow You into the Dark” and follows it up with the reunited band on “When We Drive.” The band cranks up their last two selections using gems from their highly revered wonder of their fourth LP, Transatlanticism. “Tiny Vessels,” a ballad that smacks against the romance lyricism of “I Will Follow You,” shines bright just for its heavy load of complexities and anxiety. “Yeah, you are beautiful, but you don’t mean a thing to me,” he sings with a solemn ache. After assuring a return to Birmingham in the near future and wishing everyone a good night, Gibbard leaps into that album’s title track, a power rock ballad powered by Purple Rain-esque drama and a score of strobe light action perfect for a climatic finish.

For a concert hall like this, Death Cab for Cutie sounded mighty good in it. Their music filled the room, showing off glowing acoustics and a grandeur that almost felt intoxicating. But most concert attendees had to deal with the cluster of highly intoxicated, hyper yappy-mouthed girls who talked feverishly in between songs and the flashlight mob of the venue’s security enforcing the hell out of their extreme “no video/no photo” policy. Those moments done with nerve-wrecking repetition sucked out some of the gusto from the room.

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