Friday, March 23 , 2018, 5:39 am | Fair 50º


Jeff Moehlis: Rockin’ the Vote at UCSB

A free concert by Death Cab for Cutie rewards students for their voter registration efforts

As part of a campaign to get more college students to vote in the 2008 presidential election, Myspace and a few other organizations sponsored a nationwide contest in which the college that registered the most voters would win a free concert by indie-rock band Death Cab for Cutie.

There was some drama, including a recount between UC Berkeley and UCSB, but in the end UCSB won with 10,857 registered voters, nearly half of the total student body.

On Tuesday night at The Thunderdome Events Center at UCSB, it was payoff time.

The evening kicked off with an enthralling opening set by Ra Ra Riot, which hails from Syracuse, New York, and is on tour with Death Cab for Cutie. The band consists of four guys on standard rock instrumentation — Wes Miles on vocals, Milo Bonacci on guitar, Mathieu Santos on bass and Gabriel Duquette on drums — and two women on strings — Alexandra Lawn playing cello and Rebecca Zeller playing violin.

The strings bring a lushness to the indie-rock sound, and it was refreshing to hear such expressive cello playing occupying the sonic range also inhabited by the bass guitar.

Then, the main attraction came out. Death Cab for Cutie’s solid, energetic set drew from its whole career, from President of What? originally from its 1997 cassette-album You Can Play These Songs With Chords, to My Mirror Speaks from its just-released The Open Door EP. Crowd favorites, as evidenced by throngs of attendees singing along, included Crooked Teeth, I Will Possess Your Heart, The Sound of Settling, Soul Meets Body and, especially, I Will Follow You Into The Dark.

The latter, which was nominated in 2007 for a Grammy award (it didn’t win), is a haunting yet beautiful meditation on death played on acoustic guitar by frontman, singer and guitarist Ben Gibbard (sans band). It was thoroughly documented by seemingly every other person holding up a cell phone to record it. All other songs were performed by the full band, which also consists of Chris Walla on guitar, Nicholas Harmer on bass and Jason McGerr on drums. Keyboards were used in some songs, which provided some welcome different textures. A simple but effective light show nicely complemented the music.

At this point, you might be wondering, who is this Death Cab for Cutie, anyway?

The band started playing in the late 1990s in Bellingham, Wash., and now is based in Seattle. Its name comes from the song Death Cab for Cutie by the psychedelic comedy-rock Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, which the Bonzos played in The Beatles’ trippy film Magical Mystery Tour. (At least Death Cab for Cutie didn’t go for the Bonzo’s song 11 Moustachioed Daughters, a superior song but a dubious name for a band.)

Death Cab for Cutie features a relatively clean sound with intelligent, thoughtful lyrics, and first gained popularity with the college crowd before signing with a major label and crossing over to more mainstream success.

As such, in an impressionistic sense and perhaps more, I would compare it to a jangle-free R.E.M. for college students of the present era.

Jangle or not, the college students at The Thunderdome were having fun while packed into a hot, tangled crowd with scattered patches of good-natured rowdiness. They sang along, clapped, danced, and swayed their arms above their heads under Gibbard’s direction. Women yelled out their love for Gibbard. The band members also seemed to be enjoying themselves, feeding off the energy of the crowd to deliver a spirited performance.

When the main set ended, it became clear why the events center is called The Thunderdome. The cheering, screaming and stomping of the crowd was almost deafening. Death Cab for Cutie returned for a somewhat mellow three-song encore, which intensified at the end of the closing song Transatlanticism as Gibbard repeatedly sang, “I need you so much closer,” leaving the crowd ultimately fulfilled.

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.

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