“Whenever we start playing that song, ‘Asphalt Meadows,’ usually all I can smell is weed,” Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard announced to a shoulder-to-shoulder packed Jannus Live Tuesday night. But in this case, all Ben was getting was cigar smoke. “It’s the weirdest fuckin’ thing. It just keeps going.”
It isn’t surprising that someone in the sold-out crowd was celebrating with stogies. Before Tuesday night, the last time the indie rock quintet—back then, a quartet—stepped on Tampa Bay soil was in 2004, on the Vote For Change tour’s stop in Ybor City, at what is now The Ritz. Almost 20 years and many stressful elections later, the band—now featuring Dave Depper in guitarist Chris Walla’s place, and a mostly full-time keyboardist, Zac Rae—is promoting the new album on which “Asphalt Meadows” is the title track, and I’d be lying if I said that Gibbard and friends didn’t get through most of it.
Once indie-rock four-piece Momma—leaning mainly on its own latest album Household Name—finished a 30-minute opening set, Death Cab walked across the Jannus entryway, and hit the stage. Silhouetted by the lights during the first verse, the band swung into Asphalt Meadows’ opening track “I Don’t Know How I Survive,” which in a world cursed with inflation and war, can be dubbed as one of the most relatable tracks in the band’s discography.
Gibbard, dressed in a white T-shirt with black stripes, belted out just about every tune in the nearly two-hour set in each respective original key, created a few song segues (like smoothly fading straight from “Roman Candles” into “The New Year”), and remained one of the finest frontmen in modern rock history, dueling his guitarist bandmates on the occasion.
“It’s been too long!” He admitted while greeting this strange part of Tampa Bay he had just arrived in for the first time ever.
But the 46-year-old frontman’s presence wasn’t the only star of the show. Death Cab for Cutie isn’t really known for eclectic guitar solos, but Dave Depper still managed to leave an impressive mark, going to town mostly on Fano models, including probably the brightest orange axe known to man, which was used for about half of the set, whenever a white one wasn’t in use.
As for Gibbard, he managed to differentiate between three guitars throughout the night: A custom Fender Telecaster, his own signature Fender Mustang, and an acoustic Gibson J-45, the latter of which would be leaned on mainly whenever he wanted to focus more on vocals than rhythm guitar. There were a few exceptions, though. On his Gibson, he lead a singalong of Tampa Bay’s first-ever live performance of “I Will Follow You Into The Dark,” as well as on “Soul Meets Body,” both off Plans.
It was also surprising how well Death Cab could hold a Grateful Dead-style jam session. As if the original four-and-a-half-minute instrumental intro of “I Will Possess Your Heart” wasn’t enough proof of that, Gibbard started that song—with a far more extensive intro—on one of his Fenders, then jumped behind a centerstage classroom piano to sing on, before coming full circle and returning to his Fender. And as an acknowledgement to how “psyched” the group was to have Momma on tour with it, Gibbard dedicated “We Looked Like Giants” to them, and ended it with guitar-heavy instrumental improv, while bi pride lights shone across the stage, just because.
Despite this being the band’s first Tampa Bay gig in almost 20 years, Gibbard remembers not only his first time in Florida—a 1999 gig at Jack Rabbits Live in Jacksonville—but also his first time here in 2000, while promoting Death Cab’s sophomore We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes album (promoted by Creative Loafing Tampa Bay's current Creative Director, Jack Spatafora, who runs the Aestheticized Presents promotions company).
“I feel it would be appropriate to do a song from that record tonight,” he explained before launching into “405,” which recently made a comeback to the regular setlist rotation after only being performed sporadically in the last decade or so.
Before that, Death Cab would close up its main set and tell St. Pete the “bedtime story”—well, before its four-song encore that concluded with “Transatlanticism” anyway—that was “Foxglove Through the Clearcut,” complete with Gibbard’s soothing narration about the man who lived close to the ocean, due to running out of American soil to drive on once reaching the edge. “No one seems interested in fixing what they've broken/They just sweep the pieces into the bushes and slip away,” Gibbard lamented on his behalf.
Perhaps we can all learn something from Death Cab for Cutie. Whether it’s sentimental, the will to at least try and repair what is wrong, or even the difference between weed and cigars, here’s hoping that Ben Gibbard continues to come up with extra tricks to keep up his sleeve.
Hopefully, it won’t be another 20 years before Tampa Bay gets to see them again.
See Sandra Dohnert’s photos below.