During last night’s excellent outdoor concert at Stage AE, Death Cab for Cutie turned up the guitars on its indie-pop masterpieces for a show that both roused and rocked Pittsburgh.
The concert began just before 9 p.m. as the band took the stage with little fanfare but much applause. Frontman Ben Gibbard was dressed in a black button-down shirt and black pants. The rest were similarly dressed for a night on the town. The venue looked sold out.
The setlist started with “I Dreamt We Spoke Again” and “Summer Years”—the first two tracks from their latest album, 2018’s Thank You for Today. Both songs are contemplative, the first ethereal even. But on stage, Gibbard whirled around while strumming chords on his guitar between verses. The concertgoers, mostly ages 25 to 50, responded with more applause.
The stage adornment was simple: just the usual rigged lighting plus a dozen narrow, vertical lights circling the band. The lights alternated in color throughout the concert.
“Pittsburgh, what’s happening?” Gibbard asked. “Thanks for coming out.” They next launched into “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive,” an upbeat number. He then led the audience in handclaps into the next song, “Long Division,” which saw concertgoers singing along. The sun was set, the crescent moon was out, and the weather was perfectly cool.
The high point of the night was “I Will Possess Your Heart,” an eight-minute-long tour de force which begins with a four-minute-long instrumental. Bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr shone early on and then guitarist Dave Depper and keyboardist Zac Rae joined with lush fills.
Halfway through the instrumental, Gibbard switched from guitar to piano as the song continued to build until breaking, like a wave, with its startling first line, which the crowd also sang: “How I wish you could see the potential, the potential of you and me.” The intensity never abated; Gibbard’s voice never wavered.
As a high point though, the song arrived a little too early in the setlist. Still, the band kept up most of the energy with “Autumn Love” and then the electronic-tinged “Black Sun.” Other highlights from the evening included “Gold Rush,” “Expo ’86,” and “Northern Lights.” During the last of these, the stage was awash in rainbow colors. They closed the first set with “Soul Meets Body.”
After the encore break, Gibbard returned solo with his guitar for the beautiful “I Will Follow You into the Dark.” The rest of the band then joined him for “When We Drive” and “Tiny Vessels.” Death Cab for Cutie played an impressive 23 songs in two hours, ending with “Transatlanticism,” the title track from its 2003 breakout fourth album.
Toward the end of the first set, Gibbard thanked everyone and said, “This makes up for last time.” His comment likely alluded to the band’s outdoor show at Stage AE in 2015. Another great concert, but with one caveat. Early in the performance, Gibbard’s guitar was muted, and he, visibly flustered, stopped the music and walked off stage to regroup.
At least he had a sense of humor about it as well as the humility to mention it nearly four years later. If frequent singalongs, applause, and cheers are any indication, the audience forgave him. No technical difficulties this time. Rather, a pitch-perfect rock concert and a crowd ready to return the next time they’re in town.
Opening act Lala Lala got the crowd warmed up with the perfect balance of grungy guitar and indie-pop jingle-jangle. “Destroyer” is worth a listen.
Christopher Maggio is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor who enjoys live music.