Rest easy, Death Cab for Cutie fans. The Seattle-area rock band hasn't lost any of its mercurial power even after it lost one of its key members.
In fact, one nitpicky criticism that could be made of Saturday's sold-out concert at Northrop Auditorium is it was too much a conventional, classic Death Cab show. Clearly, though, none of the fans — who bought tickets the morning they went on sale and yelled, "I love you, Ben!" between every other song — seemed to be let down by that.
The worshipful concert followed a soul-searching moment in Death Cab's 18-year history. Guitarist Chris Walla quit the band last year to spend more time producing records, leaving frontman Ben Gibbard to carry on with co-founding bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr, plus a couple new guys who joined in time for the group's first tour in three years.
Like a living-room paint job that takes some getting used to, Walla's absence was off-putting at first. But then, so was the dullard of an opening song, "No Room in Frame," from the new album, "Kintsugi."
By the third tune, 2001's "Why'd You Want to Live Here," the new lineup settled into a heavier groove that proved it's already a well-oiled machine. Or at least it's operable enough to let Gibbard retain most of the spotlight.
With his sleeves rolled up and his hair dangling in his face most of the time, the Death Cab leader got to work doing what he does best: opening up.
After the bleak and burning single "Black Sun," he continued to make a stronger case for the new album with the more melodic and richly gloomy songs "Little Wanderer" and "You've Haunted Me All My Life" — tunes that, if not overtly about his recent divorce, certainly weren't inspired by puppy dogs and ice cream.
Gibbard didn't talk much throughout the nearly two-hour show, but when he did speak up, it was usually with an eye for his surroundings. Early on, he noted how much Northrop has changed since 2006, when Death Cab played the once-cavernous, now-regal auditorium with Franz Ferdinand before the venue's recent $88 million face-lift.
"Last time we played a show here, and this time it feels like we're playing a recital," he quipped. Coincidentally or not, he later spoke fondly of perhaps the least-posh rooms in town while introducing "President of What?" from Death Cab's 1998 debut album: "[It] goes out to the basement of the 7th Street Entry."
Three-quarters of the way through the show, the band locked in and set off on a run of its most essential '00s songs, the ones that boosted Death Cab from the Entry's bigger neighbor First Avenue to theaters and festivals.
A solo-acoustic version of "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" gave the crowd an excuse to sing along loudly (not that one was needed). Then came full-bore, precisely played renditions of "The New Year," "Cath … ," "Soul Meets Body" and "I Will Possess Your Heart." If Death Cab concerts were "Star Wars" movies, this would have been the Death Star aerial assault and Cloud City lightsaber duel in one swoop.
Comparatively, the encore proved to be more "Phantom Menace," with the mellower oldies "Passenger Seat" and "Title Track" and midtempo new song "El Dorado" stifling the momentum. The band did get a chance to reiterate its still-volatile chemistry with the crescendoing finale, "Transatlanticism," a song about navigating troubled waters. For the remade Death Cab, Saturday night was mostly smooth sailing.