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Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie

Leslie Plesser, Star Tribune

READ Death Cab's set list and weekend mini-reviews of "Wits," Tommy Stinson and Marijuana Deathsquads at startribune.com/artcetera

Death Cab drives it home

  • Star Tribune
  • May 22, 2011 - 9:21 PM

Well played on the underplay, Death Cab.

A band that rose out of indie-rock cult fame to major-label stardom in the mid-'00s (despite its hopeless moniker), Death Cab for Cutie returned to its roots Saturday night at First Avenue and reignited its most intense fan base.

The venue is about a third the size of the places it can normally fill. Hence the name of the Seattle quartet's current outing, the "Underplay Tour," a concert industry term for such strategically downsized affairs.

Saturday's two-hour show was one giant love affair. The 1,400 concertgoers -- who landed tickets through fan-friendly, will-call-only methods -- got to see the band up close and personal (way personal, as is Death Cab's musical style).

The four band members got plenty out of it, too, starting with the nostalgic fix of revisiting old stomping grounds. "It's an honor and treat to be back at First Avenue," singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard gushed, calling it "one of the best clubs in the country."

Another big advantage of doing an underplay gig was that Gibbard's crew got to road-test a half-dozen new songs in front of diehard fans who would cheer them on through a free-form jazz jam, if it came to that.

Most of the new tunes proved to be real crowd-pleasers, though. From the seventh Death Cab album, "Codes and Keys" (out next week), the songs sound influenced by such rhythmic, bouncy inspirators as Joy Division and Stereolab, especially the jagged but melodic "Doors Unlocked & Open." The new single "You Are a Tourist" carried more of a powerful climax in concert. Only the limp, light "Underneath the Sycamore" dragged.

Even with the new material as its focus, the band apparently had no intention of underplaying older favorites.

Two of the biggest Death Cab standards opened the concert, "I Will Possess Your Heart" and "The New Year." The hits kept coming, too, including "Photobooth," "Long Division" and a solo/acoustic "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" mid-show.

The set then peaked with "Soul Meets Body" and "Cath ..." before an encore featuring the "Title & Registration" and "Transatlanticism" -- older and somewhat callow songs that might have sounded out of place anywhere else, but they fit in perfect here.

Ultimately, Saturday's set list might have been too charitable. Having so many old nuggets on the "Underplay" tour could undermine the band's newly announced "regular-size" gig Aug. 26 at Roy Wilkins Auditorium. But let's not overthink it.

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658 • Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib

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