It’s a rare treat to watch an indie band like Death Cab for Cutie in Auckland’s exquisite Civic Theatre. The world-renowned atmospheric theatre usually takes its audience and performers out of the confines of a boring boxed-like arena, and places them in a Moorish garden, complete with the twinkling of midnight stars in the ceiling high above. Either side of the proscenium arch, dragons hold court, with glowing blue eyes like fantastical bouncers, keeping the, as it turns out, politely sitting audience at bay.
Death Cab for Cutie are mercurial, picking and choosing, but also hitting and missing from a much-loved back catalogue and airing tracks from last year’s elegantly spacious, on the record at least, Thank You For Today.
Fret not though, 2 songs in, Cutie leader Ben Gibbard invites fans to break the fourth wall and come and fawn along the empty front row. Now, we have fans standing up and not moving, blocking the view of fans sitting down and not moving; fans nonetheless, radiating a glorious passion for their boys.
... the venue is under-utilised for this performance of five blokes in black standing around under some perfunctory lights. It’s all in all an awkward situation that niggles throughout.
But, they’ve turned all that makes the Civic so special off. Dragon’s eyes off. Rapunzel-esque tower lights, off. Stars, off. We might as well be in that box. Whether it was a decision by the Auckland Arts Festival or the band’s choice to play here, the venue is under-utilised for this performance of five blokes in black standing around under some perfunctory lights. It’s all in all an awkward situation that niggles throughout.
Death Cab for Cutie are obviously indie-darlings to a die-hard fan base, but they are the darlings of safe-indie-lite.
At one point, Gibbard brashly professes to have rocked so hard last time they played in Auckland that the venue, St James Theatre, was demolished and that he can’t promise that the same won’t happen with the Civic. Doubt it mate; this is elegant yet safe, with a smattering of catchy choruses in between some guitar mire, but them glowing dragon’s eyes ain’t going nowhere.
Gibbard has a good line of jogging backwards - wonderful, like a rabbit moonwalking. But during the first half of the set, he leaves the frontman possy any time he’s not singing, leaving a strange empty space in such an intimate setting.
Guitarists Nick Harmer and Dave Depper do a good job of standing and playing. Harmer’s bassline on I Will Possess Your Heart is hypnotic and groovy, Depper is consistently clear and beautiful on backing vocals. Drummer Jason McGerr is enjoying the fast one but looks end-of-tour during the slowbies. It’s Zac Rae who captivates, standing at the back like a goofy cousin, noodling away, singing along and rabble rousing.
On their latest album, Thank You For Today, Ben Gibbard’s nasal implorings are surrounded by a smoother, and more complimentary sonic move towards the smooth. An acoustic piano is given space to breathe. This space is lost tonight. On No Sunlight, however, it shines through. Things seems to pick up from here. There’s a delicious bit of audience teasing with a grungy, sexy, long feedy-backy bit on the penultimate chord, before they are rewarded with the completion of the cadence. NIce touch!
It’s also great that, almost cheekily, the muckier, yobby-guitars and sequencers of 2015’s Kintsugi pop up now and then. Gibbard introduces Black Sun as “the catchiest I wrote in the worst year of my life”. There’s great indie imagery to be heard here - ‘there’s whisky in the water’, but the glee of the album version is lost in this live rendering - gone are the metalic, arpeggiator synths - well not gone, but very low in the mix and replaced with a tragic case of Rhodes-piano-itus. Then, bam! Suddenly we get the distorted, sexy, angsty guitar which puts the sternum of edge. Proper loud! But it’s whipped away and we’re back to jingle-jangle.
Having said that, when they can be heard, there’s a kookiness to Gibbard’s lyrics and delivery that is charming, like on piano-led What Sarah Said. On I Will Follow You Into The Dark, Gibbard’s nasal voice shines, and he peppers the verging on nausicating, picked guitar part with quirky lyrics, like the imperative “illuminate the NOs on their vacancy signs” which you just gotta tip your hat to. When a songwriter adds words you don’t expect to hear in pop songs, you know something good is going on.
On Doors Unlocked And Open there are hints of Gibbard’s The Postal Service days, in his melodic dallyings - “down the ocean of sound sound” - and an engaging, nervous drumming from McGerr. These are the moments when the magic of the Civic comes back.
Transatlanticism has all the hallmarks of the, perhaps obligatory, staple of any indie band worth its salt, yes, the +6 minute slow, gloomy start, slow-build up middle and crash-bang-distorty-wallop-ending anthem that is a touring albatros.
This one’s a cracker though. For once at a live music gig, you can hear the lyrics, and they speak poetically and marvelously of trapped isolationism [if we’re sticking with the isms fun]: “thought it less like a lake, more like a moat”
Swap Atlantic for Pacific, and you’ve got your perfect lament to what it sometimes feels like living in Aotearoa, far from the usual, well-worn paths of touring bands. However, with the inclusion of more and more great international bands in festivals like the Death Cab for Cuties, this feeling is slowly ebbing. Just please allocate more suitable venues.