Home Read Features Concert Review: Death Cab For Cutie | Ottawa Bluesfest, July 9, 2023

Concert Review: Death Cab For Cutie | Ottawa Bluesfest, July 9, 2023

The Washington alt-pop quintet make a magnificent return to the nation's capitol.

Photo by Area Resident.

OTTAWA It’s a show Death Cab For Cutie should have been up for, and they were — a muggy night under the cloudy skies in the Nation’s Capital with thousands of fares.

The Washington State alt-pop quintet hadn’t played a show in nearly a month, following a series of amphitheatre shows in Western Canada and the Western U.S. (their hometown is about halfway between Vancouver and Seattle). So they were fresh and got to play outside in a city they haven’t visited since 2011, something which frontman and principal songwriter Ben Gibbard, 46, directly addressed.

Ah, yes — 2011: The year the stage collapsed. The awful incident was the result of a freak 117 km/h gust of wind which toppled the main stage moments after Cheap Trick wisely opted to run for safety. Death Cab, who had been watching from the side of the stage as they prepared to headline Bluesfest‘s closing night, witnessed it all and not only didn’t perform that night, but haven’t been back since to the city Gibbard amusingly referred to as “The Wa.”

He told a story of being collected from the Ottawa airport the night before and telling the driver “It’s good to be back in the Wa.” The driver, according to Gibbard, asked — “What did you say?” Gibbard repeated his statement, to which the driver told him “nobody calls it that.” Said Gibbard: “Well, you should. It’s cool.”

Photo by Area Resident.

There were a few references to “The Wa” — at least one of which was hilariously augmented by lead guitarist Dave Depper making the Paul McCartney & Wings symbol above his head (that’s two open palms with the tips of the thumbs touching, you kids). Another hint that this was a special show for the band came after the encore when the band gathered at centre stage. Keyboardist and guitarist Zac Rae took a photo of the large outdoor crowd. Rae has some pretty strong musical connections to the city — he began his career as a member of Alanis Morisette’s backing band.

Having seen the band once before in March 2016 (opening for Metric) at Montreal’s Bell Centre, there were some major differences between the two shows. First, Bluesfest was nowhere near as loud. It wasn’t loud at all, in fact — and I was about six bodies from the edge of the stage. Unfortunately, Gibbard’s guitar (any of the the four or five he played that night) was barely audible for most of the show. Another difference was the energy level. There’s a certain dynamic that comes from being the headliner, and it certainly showed. This was their night and they had something familiar for even the most casual fan. With all those fans gathered together on the War Museum’s front lawn, the show was far more intimate than one held at the huge, concrete home of the struggling Montreal Canadiens (who were in the midst of their worst slump since 1940, their star goaltender out for the season on a night where they were — coincidentally — in Ottawa losing 5-0 to the Senators).

The band didn’t mess around, performing 17 songs (including two epics) into their hour-and-a-half set. The majority came from the band’s latest release Asphalt Meadows, which dropped in the fall of 2022. One of those opened the evening — I Don’t Know How To Survive fell together behind a repeated Gibbard guitar pattern and was, like most of the set, among the band’s more upbeat tracks. Same goes with the followup Roman Candles, also from the new album.

Photo by Area Resident.

My own excitement level soared for The New Year, the opening track from the band’s beloved 2003 album Transatlanticism. As a drummer myself, Jason McGerr was interesting to watch, particularly on this song. He has such a soft touch, which was pretty consistent until the encore when he hammered the snare drum like a high school student full of Monster drinks.

Another classic Cath… followed, from the band’s 2008 album Narrow Stairs, which remains their best-selling record, having hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Likely future setlist mainstay Here To Forever was next, from Asphalt Meadows, followed by Black Sun from 2015’s Kintsugi — the last record to feature original guitarist and contributing songwriter Chris Walla.

The fan favourite Crooked Teeth had the crowd singing along as they hopped up and down and took phone videos, but nowhere was the singing-along more prominent than in the Gibbard-only acoustic ballad I Will Follow You Into The Dark. Gibbard allowed the crowd to take lead vocals on one of the last choruses. During the applause, someone behind me said “shivers, actual shivers” and my daughter, who attended the show with me, wiped away tears. I may have joined her in that display of emotion if I’d heard Passenger Seat, but that didn’t happen until the ride home.

The show continued with the epic, rising, repetitive live mainstay I Will Possess Your Heart, one of the best songs about stalkers ever. Perhaps slightly slower than the studio version, but I got to see how Gibbard gets his guitar effects on the outro: E-bow. And now I need one.

Photo by Area Resident.

To my ear, the best songs of the night, performance-wise, were the new ones. Prime example was the stunning delivery of Asphalt MeadowsFoxglove Through The Clearcut as the main set closer. It was dynamic, engaging and at times — absolutely exhilarating.

Two big favourites made up the encore: The well-known Soul Meets Body from the platinum, Grammy-nominated Plans (2005), and the anthemic title track from Transatlanticism, which was brilliant apart from a bit of a guarded build towards the final chorus — something which is stunningly effective on the studio album, which you definitely need to get the 10th anniversary edition of, btw.

While Gibbard (who sure spits a lot) is clearly the driving force behind the band, it’s difficult to imagine them without the contributions of any of the five members. Each — Gibbard, McGerr, Rae, guitarist/keyboardist Dave Depper and bass player Nick Harmer — all had their moments and were solid throughout. Apart from drummer McGerr, every one of them played multiple instruments.

Summer highlight so far. There was no doubt about which side I was on.


Set List:

I Don’t Know How I Survive
Roman Candles
The New Year
Here to Forever
Black Sun
Crooked Teeth
Rand McNally
I Will Follow You Into the Dark
I Will Possess Your Heart
Asphalt Meadows
The Ghosts of Beverly Drive
We Looked Like Giants
The Sound of Settling
Foxglove Through the Clearcut
Soul Meets Body

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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.

Photo by Area Resident.