Last night Death Cab For Cutie saved my life.
I saw Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla of Death Cab play an acoustic show in Denver last night–part of an invite-only, DNC event called Concert For A Cool Climate put on by the League Of Conservation Voters. The duo started out their set with a ripping version of their 1986 anthem, "Turbo Lover," before segueing into a crowd-melting, sing-along rendition of "Caribbean Queen," the hit that launched them into the upper atmosphere of ultra-stardom all those decades ago.
Okay, I'll fess up. I don't know shit about Death Cab For Cutie. I couldn't tell you the difference between [insert frantic Googling sound] "We Look Like Giants" and "What Sarah Said." Although I could probably guarantee you that I like Hall & Oates' "Sara Smile" a hell of a lot more than either of those songs. I've heard all of Death Cab's albums at least once, though, and I even have to admit to liking that one really long single off their new record–the one that sounds like a pretty good band for a few minutes until the dude starts singing. But yeah, overall, Death Cab just ain't my cup of tea.
Still, they kinda saved my ass last night.
The problem I'm having with doing this DNC blog is trying to balance a tight, meticulous event schedule with a looser method of urban exploration that Baudelaire called flânerie, Debord called dérive, and I call zoning out and wandering around the city all clueless and shit. Planning things to the last microscopic detail makes my brain itch. And the DNC is so chaotic, it seems silly to even try to devise an ironclad itinerary. So, as I mentioned in my previous two DNC blogs, I've been taking it to the streets of Denver this week, just waiting to see what kind of music-related fun might pop up.
But yesterday, my plan-without-a-plan hit a brick wall. After leaving my apartment in the early afternoon and heading toward downtown Denver, I decided to veer toward Civic Center Park, across the street from the state capitol. It was nearing 2 p.m., and Public Enemy had been, until a couple days ago, scheduled to play a free show in the park at 2. But the concert fell through at the eleventh hour–botched by the fine folks at Recreate '68, who still have the PE show listed on their website–and was subsequently rescheduled at the Boulder Theater. In any case, there were other bands still playing Civic Center, and I was curious to see if any PE fans would show up, get pissed that the group wasn't there, and, you know, start a riot or something.
No such luck. This, pathetically, is what a Public Enemy-shaped hole in the fabric of spacetime looks like:
In place of revolutionary rap, we got frat-boy funk played on top of a trailer. A California group called The People's Party were stinking it up in the park at the stroke of 2 p.m., exactly when and where Public Enemy was originally supposed to play. Word must have gotten out about PE's move to Boulder–there weren't more than a couple dozen people watching The People's Party, and none of them seemed to be looking around frantically for Flavor Flav.
It wasn't long, though, before Civic Center got that revolutionary rap it was missing. Rebel Diaz, a trio of MCs from the Bronx, took to the park's main amphitheater. They were fucking fantastic: soulful and Latin-tinged, the group wasn't afraid to drop some sonic heaviness and bait the riot-geared cops who were swarming all over the park like a storm cloud. In fact, Rebel Diaz–in between laying down some vicious screeds about racism, the Iraq War, and LGBT rights–performed a blistering song called "Handcuffs" and dedicated it to "all the Ninja Turtle-looking motherfuckers" patrolling the park with billy clubs and body armor. It was no "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos," but it rocked.
By the time Rebel Diaz wrapped up their set, the sun was on its way down. I was already beat. And I still had no idea what show I was going to hit up later in the night. I did have a fallback: I managed to get on the list for a $100-a-head show–a benefit for the Human Rights Campaign at the toilet-bowl-like Fillmore Auditorium–headlined by Melissa Etheridge. Ugh. Rufus Wainwright was also on the bill, which might have been okay, and Cyndi Lauper was co-headlining. I have mixed feelings about the prospect of seeing Cyndi Lauper in concert. I mean, I have as much warm-fuzzy nostalgia for "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" as anyone who was a kid in the '80s. But I was actually more stoked when I heard about the bill's last-minute addition: Thelma Houston, the diva behind the disco classic "Don't Leave Me This Way." I love that song so much, I even included it in an A.V. Club blog last year about my favorite jams to listen to while walking to and from work every day. Yeah, I know: I like some corny-ass shit.
As much as I enjoy being totally gay-anthemized, I was dreading going to the Etheridge/Lauper/Wainwright/Houston show. I doubted I would be able to sneak in my camera. I knew I was going to have sit through some horrible crap to hear, like, five good songs. And I knew writing up the show at length was going make this entire blog as boring as the last paragraph was.
Dan is one of the proprietors of a small shop in Denver called Kilgore Books & Comics, a place I try to pimp as often as I can 'cause it rules. He called me up out of the blue around 8 and told me he had somehow miraculously procured two passes to the Death Cab For Cutie show, one of two acoustic sets that Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla are playing as a duo during the DNC. Both Death Cab shows are–in a true celebration of democracy-in-action–totally closed to the general public. Dan, however, used to work for one of the organizers of the so-called Concert For A Cool Climate, so he squeaked in. And he graciously asked me to join him.
So I ran up to the venue, the fancy Sherman Event Center, which just so happens to be an entire block and a half away from my apartment. It was weird walking into the main room of the huge, antique hall. Last time I was there, I was DJing a friend's wedding and almost got in a fistfight with the bride's drunken uncle over my choice of music (which, of course, had been handpicked by the bride). Word to the wise: Don't ever be a wedding DJ.
Dan and I grabbed seats in the front row–there were maybe 300 people assembled in front of the small stage, which was flanked on either side by a huge video screen–when the entertainment started. First was a commercial about the viability of natural gas. Electrifying! Then there was a commercial for one of the event's beer sponsors. I don't drink anymore, but it sure made me thirsty. After that, some guy running for office in Oklahoma took the stage to introduce the opening act, a fellow Oklahoman (whom the candidate insanely compared to other great Oklahoman songwriters like Woody Guthrie and Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips) named Graham Colton.
Colton sang a handful of heartland roots-rock songs, and he did so with incredibly large and sparkly-white teeth. He introduced his last number–a generic ditty called "Best Days" that he sheepishly mentioned was once played on American Idol–as if trying to downplay a compliment no one had actually given him. (Come to think of it, if he's Mr. American Idol, why wasn't he playing the $500 Daughtry show down the street at the Church last night?) Then Colton flashed one final blinding smile and got the fuck off the stage and made way for the real stars.
A parade of congressmen and other slimy elected officials commenced to hop up, grab the mic, and start barfing up Democrat soundbites. (Granted, they were soundbites I mostly agreed with. Still, they were holding up my concert, the one I'd paid so much to get into and had been looking forward to for so, so long.) First up: Ed Markey of Massachusetts. I liked his tan. Second: Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. I want him to be president someday, 'cause how cool would it be to have a commander-in-chief named President Whitehouse? Third: Jay Inslee of Washington. Wait, Washington? Isn't Death Cab from there? The anticipation mounts. Fourth: Christine Gregoire, Governor of Washington, who finally introduced Gibbard and Walla–by lumping Death Cab in with airplanes and Starbucks as one of her state's prime exports. Glowing praise, indeed.
Then Gibbard and Walla shambled onstage, manipulated guitar strings and piano keys, and sang real purty. It was surprisingly not lousy: While I don't particularly like Death Cab, they've never been potent enough to inspire anything as strong as hatred in me, either. Plus I liked that Gibbard was done up exactly like a member of CCR circa 1969:
And that Walla was done up exactly like a member of The Byrds circa 1966:
I just wished they sounded like the CCR and The Byrds. Or anything but Death Cab For Cutie, really. But whatever: The duo did play a gorgeous cover of Teenage Fanclub's "Start Again," which is a practically a Byrds cover itself. In fact, for the first time I can remember–with all the indie-rock trappings and emo-y bombast stripped way–Death Cab's songs struck me as being pretty classic pop tunes. Slightly boring classic-pop tunes, but hey, that's a hair better than slightly boring indie-rock tunes. I still might not be able to tell their songs apart, but after last night I am incredibly grateful to Death Cab For Cutie. After all, they saved me from a Melissa Etheridge concert. And for that, I just might owe them my life.