REVIEW: Death Cab For Cutie at the Riverside Theater

Photo by Will Hughes.

Death Cab For Cutie stopped in Milwaukee as part of their “Asphalt Meadows” tour on Tuesday evening, playing for an immense crowd at the Riverside Theater. The band is a frequenter of Milwaukee; they have played Summerfest five times (as recently as last year) and consider Milwaukee to be their second home (for reasons we’ll get into later). Opening for them was Texas-based indie pop act Lomelda.

Formed in 1997 in Bellingham, Washington, Death Cab For Cutie consists of Ben Gibbard (vocals, guitar, piano), Dave Depper (guitar, keys, backing vocals), Nick Harmer (bass, backing vocals), Zac Rae (keys, guitar, backing vocals) and Jason McGerr (drums). The band’s name comes from a Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band song, and their style over a nearly 25-year run has encompassed indie-alternative rock with a distinctively confessional, often melancholy lyrical approach. Death Cab For Cutie began as Gibbard’s solo songwriting project while he was studying at Western Washington University; eventually he decided to turn it into a full band that comprised himself and Harmer plus guitarist Chris Walla and drummer Nathan Good. Their debut album “Something About Airplanes” was released in 1998 followed by lauded sophomore album “We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes” in 2000; the band’s early material contained emo sensibilities marked by themes of quarter-life uncertainties and gloomy emotions.

2001’s “The Photo Album” saw Death Cab For Cutie entering a proper recording studio for the first time and penning bolder, more pop-oriented songs; their song “A Movie Script Ending” off that album appeared in the show “The O.C.” which became their first time being featured in a TV show. 2003 saw the release of Death Cab For Cutie’s critically acclaimed fourth album “Transatlanticism” which would garner them both greater commercial success and more placements in television and film; conceptually, the album is about love and distance. After releasing a live EP titled “The John Byrd EP” in early 2004, the band signed with major label Atlantic Records to release their fifth album “Plans” in 2005, which featured some of Death Cab For Cutie’s most well-known singles including “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” and “Soul Meets Body.” Also in 2005, the band released a touring DVD titled “Drive Well, Sleep Carefully”, then the following year they came out with a collection of short films titled “Directions: The Plans Video Album” to accompany the tracks from said record. 2008’s “Narrow Stairs” saw Death Cab For Cutie focusing on darker love songs, and then 2009’s “The Open Door EP” contained leftover tracks from the “Narrow Stairs” sessions. Their 2011 album “Codes and Keys” featured Chris Walla in a more prominent songwriting role and focused less on guitar and more on keyboards; Walla departed Death Cab For Cutie in 2014, and their subsequent 2015 album “Kintsugi” was their last to feature him (replaced by Dave Depper). Ninth album “Thank You For Today” was released in 2018 followed by “The Blue EP” in 2019, and “Asphalt Meadows” – Death Cab For Cutie’s tenth and most recent album – came out last September.

Death Cab For Cutie’s set on Tuesday had a solid balance of old and new material. They played eight songs off “Asphalt Meadows” (opening their set with “I Don’t Know How to Survive”, closing their set with “Foxglove Through the Clearcut”) while making plenty of room for tunes from their acclaimed 2000’s records including a handful from “Transatlanticism”, “Plans” and “Narrow Stairs” (“The New Year”, “Your Heart Is an Empty Room”, “Cath…” “The Sound of Settling”, “Crooked Teeth”, “We Looked Like Giants”, “I Will Possess Your Heart”). When Gibbard played “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” solo acoustic, he invited the crowd to not only sing along but also to sing a chorus entirely without him in a most heartfelt moment of the night. Death Cab For Cutie’s encore consisted of “405” (“We Have the Facts and Are Voting Yes”), “Pepper” (“Asphalt Meadows”), “Soul Meets Body” (“Plans”) and the “Transatlanticism” title track.

As mentioned before, Death Cab For Cutie stated that they think of Milwaukee like a second home. Between songs, Gibbard shared fond memories of playing Cactus Club in 1999 back in the band’s early days of touring before critical and commercial success; they befriended Milwaukee band Camden while here who would later go on tour with them. It was cool to hear such sentiments and enthusiasm around Milwaukee.

The band puts on one hell of a show; they play with animation yet dexterity, reflecting palpable trust that Death Cab For Cutie’s members have among each other. Gibbard often darts theatrically across the stage as he gets each song’s melody going before returning promptly to the mic, showing that he’s just as excited to be playing these songs as we’re excited to hear them.

On a personal note, “Soul Meets Body” and “I Will Possess Your Heart” were a couple of my favorite songs in high school and it was rad getting to lean into nostalgia seeing them performed live. Admittedly, I haven’t been as familiar with Death Cab For Cutie’s recent material, but after Tuesday’s show I definitely have to dive more into “Asphalt Meadows”; I’ve had their song “Northern Lights” (“Thank You For Today”) in rotation as well.

They will likely be in Milwaukee again soon so keep an eye out!

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