BELLINGHAM — Ben Gibbard was beaming. During a fuzzed-up outro to “No Sunlight,” the Death Cab for Cutie frontman looked out at roughly 12,000 people at Bellingham’s Civic Stadium.
Spotting a front-row fan pumping a crutch in the air to the sprightly beat, Gibbard thrust the neck of his guitar toward the sky in solidarity, grinning wider than the end-zone-sized stage he was commanding.
“We’re Death Cab for Cutie, from 1138 Ellis Street,” he proudly declared earlier, the scoreboard peeking out from the side of the stage.
It was a homecoming where describing their origins with the familiarity of a street address seemed fitting. The band was relaxed and locked in throughout their stadium-ready set during Saturday’s co-headlining Double Major show with fellow Bellingham-born duo ODESZA. Hatched during a chance run-in at a SoCal festival, the indie-rock kings and electronic stars who formed while attending Western Washington University joined forces for the alumni weekend concert with proceeds benefiting the alumni association’s scholarship fund.
The flower crowns and tank tops were out for what felt like a mini presummer festival without the hassles and price-gouging of a full-fledged music festival — a joyous celebration of a community where two of Washington’s biggest homegrown stars got their starts.
Before Death Cab took the stage, Bellingham power-poppers LipStitch, Robotaki and Seattle indie-electronic producer Chong the Nomad warmed up the still-gathering crowd on the field once home to Western’s defunct football team. In a short time, Chong’s proven herself a singular artist in Seattle’s music scene, and she made good on what was perhaps the biggest set of her young career. Not unlike ODESZA, Chong blends her squirmy, eclectic beats with live instrumentation, and between the headbanging, almost moonwalking, ukulele strumming and her harmonica beatboxing routine that left at least one jaw on the floor (“Oh, she’s on a harmonica now?! Noooooo!” exclaimed one fan), she owned it.
After easing in with gliding newbie “I Dreamt We Spoke Again,” Death Cab bore down with several more up-tempo, crowd-moving rockers like “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” and “Long Division.” Over the years, few songwriters have mined sentimentality as poignantly as Gibbard. As sentimental as their set was at times, it was far more festive than mushy. Their not-quite-90-minute set was stuffed with fan favorites, sprinkling in a few old gems like the brawny, three-guitar flex of “Pictures in an Exhibition” (dedicated to Gibbard’s former schoolmate Brent Cole of Bellingham’s What’s Up! Magazine).
Gibbard’s unabashed “love letter” to Bellingham, “A Movie Script Ending” — written shortly after he moved to Seattle — was the nostalgic peak, a dreamy stroll down memory lane, name-checking Holly Street and Railroad Avenue a mile down the road from where they intersect.
The sun had set by the time ODESZA took the stage, revealing a full moon that shone as brightly as the group’s mammoth LED screens. “Bellingham, it is good to be home!” crowed ODESZA’s Harrison Mills, taking the stage with a hooded, intergalactic drum line that rolled in like a summer thunderstorm. Joined by a two-piece horn section, Mills and his beat-dropping accomplice Clay Knight threw one of their bigger hits, “Say My Name,” down a smooth, harmonic wormhole, giving a graduate-level course in how to open a set.
It was a not-so-subtle reminder, lest anyone forgot, that the duo formed during their waning days at Western and has become one of the most dynamic live electronic acts around. The drum brigade wandered in and out of their 90-minute set, adding a primal intensity to ODESZA’s hypnotic blend of ambient atmospherics with future bass thumps and house propulsions.
The cerebrally throbbing dance party continued under the moon, the stadium encircled by the silhouettes of towering pine trees against the night sky adding a touch of Northwest magic to the proceedings. ODESZA and Death Cab aren’t the first or last stars to similarly rise from a tranquil college town with a fertile arts scene. But last night’s all-star team-up felt like something that could only happen here.