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It certainly wasn't as dramatic a rock 'n' roll gesture as Dylan plugging in or Kiss unmasking, but plenty of symbolism could be gleaned from the fact that Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard performed without his glasses Monday night at the sold-out Orpheum Theatre.
A cult hero to book-wormy college students and bedroom-bound teens, the famously bespectacled rocker seemed to be shedding his sensitive-guy skin in more ways than finally purchasing a pair of contacts.
The 100-minute theater show was louder, heavier and a bit more of a rock spectacle -- but not necessarily more fulfilling -- than his group's many previous gigs at First Avenue. Since Death Cab's new album, "Narrow Stairs," debuted at No. 1 in Billboard last week, it's clear this isn't a "cute" little band anymore, and the concert seemed equally intent to prove it.
After the slow-building opener "Bixby Canyon Bridge," the first half-hour of the set was a nonstop tear through many of the Seattle quartet's punchiest, feistiest songs, including "The New Year," "Why You'd Want to Live Here" and "Crooked Teeth." The band that's often been compared to the Cure and R.E.M. came off more like Pearl Jam or the Ramones.
Gibbard, 31, even sounded tougher and meaner -- albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way -- between songs, when he announced the score of the Red Wings-Penguins hockey game from the stage (for his Wings-loving Twin Cities cousin in the crowd).
As things slowed down mid-show, they didn't necessarily lighten up. Two new songs, "Grapevine Fires" and "Long Division," had a dour, dreary vibe. Paired with the older song "Company Calls," they brought the show to an emotional and musical lull. It took a couple of the group's death-pondering classics, "Soul Meets Body" and "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," to pick things back up.
Two other new songs were more forceful, the pulsating single "I Will Possess Your Heart" and the climactic rocker "Cath." But the more rocking aspects of the show were stifled by the seat-addled theater atmosphere, just as the intimate aspects of the closer "Transatlanticism" were somewhat lost outside a club.
It also didn't help the intimacy that many of the group's tech-savvy young fans spent half the show pointing their cell-phone cameras at the stage. Maybe they were just extra excited to see Gibbard without his glasses.
Opening band Rogue Wave had its own pockets of fans in the crowd, as evidenced by the cheers for its dreamy gem "Publish My Love." The Oakland, Calif., quintet won over many newcomers with its many other quick-bursting, atmospheric pop tunes, especially the roller coaster-ish "Love's Lost Guarantee."
See the set list and fan comments at startribune.com/poplife.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658