By day I work in artist relations for a San Diego-based nonprofit organization called Invisible Children. We tour with bands as a platform to tell the story of the longest-running war in Africa, and connect artists with various awareness campaigns.
By night --occasionally -- I blog for Friends With Both Arms and SoundDiego.
Longtime supporters Frightened Rabbit invited us on the road, so I managed to fit in a few rounds of corn-hole (a touring pastime that involves bean bags and a hole) with the band before the show began. When you're a band from Scotland playing arena shows with the founding fathers of indie music, playing a simple sport becomes almost necessary; otherwise the whole thing seems a bit too surreal. While playing, they observe techniques, debate regulations and applaud the idiosyncrasies of their opponents. The act of tossing bean bags becomes a practice of normalcy.
Walking into the gymnasium-turned-venue at UCSD brings back a potent, and almost too ironic, smell of school -- like, we've all been here before. Not here but back in college, listening to Death Cab for Cutie's Transatlanticism romantically and applying all of it's somber dramaticism to our own lives. As attendees poured in, the most common conversations heard sounded something like, "This reminds me of .." or "I know exactly where I was when they played …." And that's what makes Death Cab for Cutie so extraordinary. They stand on their own among coming-of-age bands, exceeding themselves more as a concept, a mark of an era.
Death Cab for Cutie took the stage with "I Will Possess Your Heart," with what felt like a 10-minute instrumental intro. It was an appropriate precedent for the lengthy two-hour set. With the release of Codes and Keys -- a decidedly more cheerful pop effort -- Death Cab for Cutie have seen a sort of graduation of their band aesthetic, shedding the sentimental self-defeat for a sophisticated light show and LED screens playing dazzling kaleidoscope of colors. Frontman Ben Gibbard has since ditched the glasses, toned up and generally appears more vital. The band expertly crafted a set list that took us from the nostalgia of "Photo Booth" to their newest material and back again. They filled in the gaps between songs with banter about how lovely California was, then the bass reverberated in the bleachers in what could've been a scene right out of The OC.
The band dedicated the song "We Looked Like Giants" to the openers, Frightened Rabbit. Rightfully, it was one of Death Cab's most epic songs, as Gibbard took to the drums, back to the crowd in a pulsing string of bangs and crashing cymbals that reached a hearty finale that rivaled the applause and cheers of the audience. The band retreated sidestage for an unbearably long while until finally returning for an encore for the persistent crowd. They played a handful of songs and ended with"Transatlanticism." The dreamy piano ballad began building with guitars and drums, undoubtedly penetrating the deep recesses of our collective nostalgia, with Gibbard softly repeating, "I need you so much closer," to a crowd that couldn't possibly get any closer, standing in a shoulder-to-shoulder sway, revisiting that time and space one last time.
What wasn't so surprising was that a lot of people came only for the opener, Frightened Rabbit. The band has been gaining momentum, notably since the Midnight Organ Fight release in 2008. Lyrically, nothing is veiled in obscurity. Everything is put bluntly -- and painfully -- and at the very most, decorated in metaphor, but so eloquently real, self-depracating and lonely that it reads like poetry.
The band flexes that muscle we secretly desire to exercise, revealed in all of its discomfort, with their songs about rejection, our shallow nature, the love that grows through such ordinariness that all we demand is "human heat." You admit all of it when you're drunk, and in love and so devastatingly regretful that you not only empathize, you sigh with cosmic relief.
Frightened Rabbit began with songs like "Modern Leper," "Old Old Fashioned" and "Swim Until You Can't See Land." They then moved into a track off their new EP called "Scottish Winds," a patriotic anthem for their "Scottish blood."
There's a mention of body parts in nearly every song -- an exposed leg, arms, shuffling feet, naked flesh -- lead singer Scott Hutchison sings about these places coarsely, making you aware of every last bit of yourself. Going into "Backwards Walk" ( the auditory version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), you're almost laughing about how silly the whole love thing is, anyway, how it happens to all of us. The band rounded out their set with "The Loneliness" and "The Scream," a song designed for audience participation -- hand claps and "whoa-oh-oh"s crafted best to warm our palms and vocal chords for two more hours of music ahead. Frightened Rabbit do heartsick angst best -- with all its symptoms and souvenirs, translating it the only way they know how: by playing it loud.
Nada Alic runs the San Diego-based music blog Friends With Both Arms and works in artist relations for the nonprofit organization Invisible Children. Follow her updates on Twitter or contact her directly.