Just watch the fireworks.
Just watch the fireworks.

Last Night: Death Cab for Cutie, Tegan and Sara, the New Pornographers at the Hollywood Bowl

Last Night: Death Cab for Cutie, Tegan and Sara and the New Pornographers at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles; July 5, 2009.

Better than: Staying home and celebrating the Fifth of July, the sacred holiday commemorating the cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1996.

Minor celebrity spotting: Former Saturday Night Live cast member Horatio Sanz. He's skinny now, y'know.

I first saw Death Cab for Cutie in 2003 at the second location of the now-defunct Nita's Hideaway in my hometown of Tempe, AZ; a venue located in the same shopping center as a Michaels and a Chinese takeout joint called Pong-Pong. Things have changed.

Ben Gibbard has lost some weight, ditched the glasses and grown out his hair; essentially leaving the geek-chic look behind for, uh, actual chic. They've released two major-label albums, 2005's Plans and 2008's Narrow Stairs, and graduated from playing renovated steakhouses to selling out the 17,000-capacity Hollywood Bowl. Happily, though, the same things that made them so appealing way back when is what's earned them this massive success.

Other than the obvious differences in surroundings, not much has changed between Death Cab sets then and now. They still play a few songs from before their 2003 mainstream breakthrough


--"Photobooth," "A Movie Script Ending" and "President of What?" from their debut full-length, 1998's

Something About Airplanes

. They still end with the title track from


, though here it was buoyed by the efforts of a 50-piece backing band called the LA Philharmonic.

Even if it might be a bit of a put-on, Gibbard played the "aww shucks" role convincingly, saying before "A Movie Script Ending" that he wrote the song in a "really terrible one bedroom apartment in Seattle," and that he "never thought it'd be played here unless it was by the cleaning crew after a real show."

Though Gibbard may look different (having a beautiful movie star finacee might have something to do with that), he truly does still seem to be the same guy, and the rest of the band appears pretty grounded, too. You can see this in their music, which really hasn't changed--for better or worse, some might say-- since landing on a major label. They followed up their biggest commercial success (Plans) with a first single that goes about five minutes before the vocals kick in, after all (that song, "I Will Possess Your Heart," may not be perfectly radio friendly, but feels perfectly right on a holiday weekend evening in an outdoor venue).

The Los Angeles Philharmonic joined Death Cab for seven songs at the end of the set, and though at times it didn't sound like the orchestra added all that much (like during the already noisy "A Movie Script Ending"), it elevated the already powerful "Transatlanticism" to legendary status (as did the Independence Day-weekend fireworks show that added exclamation points to the song's weighty build and "I need you so much closer"s), and provided interesting lift to the bare-bones ballad "I Will Possess Your Heart."

See? Fireworks!

Two Canadian indie superstar acts--Tegan and Sara and the New Pornographers--opened. T&S charmed with hits like "Walking with a Ghost" and stories of their mom, who was in Los Angeles for the first time ("it's not as pretty as I thought it'd be," they say she said). The New Pornographers--sans Neko Case and Dan Bejar, if it needs to be mentioned--played an eight-song set of numbers like "Use It" and "Sing Me Spanish Techno."

Critic's Notebook:

Personal Bias: I've seen Death Cab for Cutie live six times now. Kind of a fan. This was my first time seeing them in California, though, and was kind of disappointed they didn't do bitter anti-LA screed "Why You'd Want to Live Here." (The Decemberists did "Los Angeles, I'm Yours" at the Palladium a couple months ago!)

Random Detail: Saw Terry Prine, lead singer of Long Beach's Greater California, walking around before the show. OC/LB in the house!

By the Way: I was completely unprepared for New Pornographers to be playing first and Tegan and Sara second. I was rather sure it would be the opposite.

Death Cab for Cutie set list:
"Marching Bands of Manhattan"
"Your Heart is an Empty Room"
"The New Year"
"Crooked Teeth"
"President of What?"
"No Sunlight"
"Summer Skin"
"I Will Possess Your Heart"
"Little Bribes"
"The Sound of Settling"

With the Los Angeles Philharmonic:
"I Will Follow You Into the Dark"
"You Can Do Better Than Me"
"Grapevine Fires"
"Title and Registration"
"A Movie Script Ending"
"Soul Meets Body"


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