You could feel it walking up First Avenue, when the pink neon lights first caught your eye and the smell of hot dogs sizzling under the tent outside hit your nose.
Written routinely, practically buried in the middle of the Showbox’s neon-framed marquee like it was just another night on the calendar: “Death Cab for Cutie.”
But it wasn’t just another night. It had been seven years since the Ben Gibbard-led indie rock greats — one of the biggest acts Seattle has produced in the Showbox’s modern era — had played the embattled downtown venue.
Thanks to a Marymoor Park rainout last September, Death Cab is holding a sold-out three-night stand at the club, which began Monday, to make amends. Inside, merch slingers peddled T-shirts listing every show Death Cab has played at the venue, going back to a June 2000 gig with fellow Seattle stalwarts Kinski.
For a guy whose often sentimental songwriting plays heartstrings like a Fender Mustang, Gibbard is far from mushy on stage. There would be no impassioned Save the Showbox stump speech on a celebratory night that hearkened back to Death Cab’s days as an indie band on the cusp. But standing in the packed venue caught in a fierce preservation battle, it was hard not to wonder how many more nights like this the beloved music hall will host as the band tore through “Gold Rush” — a song that grapples with a changing Seattle.
Lyrics like “Now that our haunts have taken flight / and been replaced by construction sites” triggered almost reflexive cheers from the rapt crowd as an amped-up Gibbard seemed to burn with more and more adrenaline with each line. It’s rare for a band with a catalog as deep as Death Cab’s, playing for a hometown crowd with them since Day One, when a new cut makes for the most chilling moment of the night.
While their newer material, including a gliding “Northern Lights” that Gibbard dedicated to “anyone who took the Bremerton ferry over tonight” — a nod to the Navy brat’s formative days ferrying in to Seattle for all-ages shows at the OK Hotel — fared well, it was the trove of old gems that made Monday one of Death Cab’s most memorable local shows of the last few years. The first half of the 105-minute set was stacked with dusted-off nuggets from the band’s first three records before 2003’s “Transatlanticism” made them indie rock stars.
Gently punchy opener “A Movie Script Ending” off 2001’s “The Photo Album” signaled the memory-lane direction the band would take, at least early on, during the intimate show Gibbard dubbed a “homecoming.” A fully charged “Why You’d Want to Live Here” kept the theme rolling, while a youthful energy carried an elated rendition of “Company Calls” and its comedown companion “Company Calls Epilogue.”
“This next song’s from our first record. We figured we’d play some old [expletive] for you,” Gibbard playfully declared before cruising through a slinky “President of What?”
Though Gibbard was clearly delighted to return to the Showbox’s intimate environs, warning front-row fans to brace themselves for sweat splashes, the venue choice was more of a logistical and sentimental move than a political one. While Gibbard’s been a vocal advocate for sparing the Showbox from redevelopment, the only direct mention of the club’s plight came during a quick plug for Historic Seattle, the preservation group leading the Save the Showbox effort, before Gibbard led an acoustic singalong of “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.”
Before closing the night with an extra tender “Transatlanticism,” Death Cab capped the preencore portion with a massive “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” a maelstrom of whirling synths and screeching guitars that felt as thunderous as the storm that thwarted the Marymoor show.
Current Seattle “it” band The Black Tones opened the show sounding looser, freer and more expansive in the venue where headlining has become a benchmark for ascending Seattle bands. If its current trajectory holds, it’s not hard to imagine a day when the punked-up garage-blues troupe could see its name on the marquee.
Speaking with Gibbard a few days before the show, he reiterated a statement he’s made throughout the Save the Showbox campaign, placing the Showbox in a select group of nationally renowned clubs like Minneapolis’ First Avenue and The Fillmore in San Francisco.
“These are rooms that whenever you go to a show there, it feels like you’re experiencing something extraordinary,” Gibbard said. “It’s not just a normal night out to see a band. You walk in the room and you feel like you’re going to see something special.”
Whatever happens with the Showbox, Monday truly was one of those extraordinary nights.
A Movie Script Ending
The New Year
Why You’d Want to Live Here
The Ghosts of Beverly Drive
President of What?
Company Calls Epilogue
What Sarah Said
I Will Follow You Into the Dark
I Will Possess Your Heart
Kids in ’99
Bixby Canyon Bridge
60 & Punk
Soul Meets Body