A lot can happen in 90 years. With the ever-changing landscape of Seattle, it’s a marvel that anything tangible sticks around for that long. The changing skyline and makeup of our fair city is constantly buzzing from the mouths of long-term locals – you can add Death Cab For Cutie to that constantly growing list with their latest single “Gold Rush,” paying homage to the seismic shifts occurring the Capitol Hill neighborhood. It’s more of a headache than a topic for most. But that’s what made The Paramount’s 90th anniversary party feel important. How often do you get to celebrate consistency in a city that’s constantly morphing into something new? But also, how often do you get to see local heroes Death Cab For Cutie for free? So, okay, there was more than one reason to celebrate.
The Paramount’s free show wasn’t just a nostalgic look at what the city has been, but also a look at the future. Death Cab For Cutie’s name rightfully topped the marque as one of the city’s top grossing and influential musical exports since the 2000s. But looking down the bill, you get a glimpse of what’s next in Seattle and what will help influence the next 90 years – with Kill Rock Stars affiliated comedian and The Problem With Apu writer/star Hari Kondabolu hosting the evening with his brilliantly sardonic and hilarious stand-up between acts. The Paramount has housed countless legendary acts in its grand, intricately decorated room and this Saturday’s show added another benchmark to that list.
The Black Tones were the first act up and set a ridiculously high bar for the evening. The trio of vocalist and guitarist Eva Walker, her twin brother and drummer Cedric Walker, and bassist Robby Little have been steadily building up steam with their rightful reclaiming of rock and roll, infused with prominent messages of black power. Their set opening for Death Cab punctuated the hard work they’ve been building upon, appearing on stage every bit of the rock stars their music exudes. Eva Walker commanded the stage with her white stratocaster and matching white boots like a 70s icon. Cedric Walker and Little created a foundation of feverish bombast for her to wail over with her guitar and thrilling vocal performance.
The Black Tone’s set culminated with a truly stunning ending – performing “The Key Of Black (They Want Us Dead)” with the Walker siblings’ mother and sister joining the band on stage. The family jubilantly danced on stage during the mostly instrumental track, eventually jumping in to sing the call-and-response chorus which beings, “We want love/They want us dead/We want peace/They want us dead.” It was a poignant moment, both revelling the glitz and glamour of the moment while drawing the audience’s attention to brutal realities facing black people in America. Throwing a party and making a point can be hard to do at the same time, but The Black Tones giddily pulled it off as the crowd clamored to soak up every riff.
Khu.éex' may have been the least familiar name on the bill for most attendees, but they certainly made sure they wouldn’t be forgotten. The collective of Native American artists took funk-fusion to another level, incorporating Alaskan Tlingit language and musical tradition to their performance. And “fusion” is quite literal here, at one point even interpolating Parliament’s “Mothership Connection (Star Child)” into the set with traditional Tlingit instrumentation (no doubt an homage to the Khu.éex’s former collaborator and Parliament member Bernie Worrell). At the top of their set, the band loudly sang and proclaimed “We all share one spirit,” setting a communal tone and welcoming the entire sold out crowd to share in this beautiful moment.
As the show progressed, more and more traditional elements came into purview. At one point vocalist and storyteller Gene Tagaban left the stage only to reemerge donning a raven mask and dancing across the stage. As the surge of rock and funk swelled behind him, along with the beat of Tlingit drums, it was hard not to be moved by this evocative display of one culture blending into another. True to their word, Khu.éex' created the sensation of a singular spirit in that crowded room.
Before Death Cab could take the stage, there was one more surprise in store as Kondabolu welcomed congresswoman Pramila Jayapal to the stage. The representative of Washington State’s 7th district celebrated her achievements as the first Indian-American woman ever elected to congress and one of only 12 members in congress born outside the USA. But she had a larger point to be made than just pointing out her accomplishments. The morning of the show, Jayapal detailed how she had visited a Federal Detention Facility in SeaTac where she spoke with detained immigrants and admonished the deceitful policy from the White House that separated children of immigrants from their parents.
“You can’t put kids in cages and separate families and expect the American people to go along with it,” Jayapal told the crowd, who responded enthusiastically in agreement. Just furthered her point more, encouraging the crowd to show up to Families Belong Together protests on June 30 across the country. She then told a brief story of seeing on Twitter that Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard showed up to a Town Hall, wanting to help support her in her resistance against the Trump administration in anyway he could and praised the band for their support and care for the wellbeing of our country. With that, she welcomed Gibbard on stage and the two embraced.
For the palpable hype in the room, Gibbard started the set off with a pensive whisper by performing the band’s heart aching ballad “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” solo on acoustic guitar. If you listened close, you could hear the crowd quietly singing along – careful to not rise above Gibbard’s melancholic coo. Shortly after, the mood quickly changed as the full band emerged to dive into Narrow Stairs cut, “I Will Possess Your Heart.” You hadn’t need to be going to The Paramount for 90 years to feel the growth that’s happened in the band. The last time this writer personally saw the group at the Paramount, they were celebrating the release of 2005’s plans with a haunting and sweet sound that was still beginning to reveal itself. Now the band’s sound is barely contained within the theater walls with a set that would easily scale to the echoing tones of an arena. It’s painstakingly obvious at this point, but it’s worth remembering that Death Cab are a “big deal band.”
Though even big bands have technical difficulties. As the band transitioned into the anthemic “The New Year,” Gibbard seemed to be having issues with his pedalboard – calling side stage for the crew to fix the problem. Visibly frustrated, Gibbard put his guitar down, grabbed his mic, and threw the mic stand to the side. Gibbard commented about making a joke about “getting what you pay for,” and that the audience deserved a show with working equipment. Thankfully, Gibbard was able to take this displeased energy and channel it into a rendition of “Crooked Teeth” with more bite than ever (hyuck, hyuck, hyuck).
The band also debuted several new songs from their forthcoming record Thank You For Today, including the aforementioned “Gold Rush” along with the jangly “Summer Years” that sounds akin to modern Barsuk artists like Hibou and the brooding “I Dreamt We Spoke Again.” Both the songs and the performance have given us our clearest vision yet of what a post-Chris Walla Death Cab may sound like – embracing airy tones and sparkling arrangements more than ever.
Midway through the set, Gibbard recalled that the first concert he ever attended was at the Paramount – Sub Pop’s Ultra Lame Fest with Mudhoney, Earth, Seaweed, Supersuckers, and Pond. Given the scope of the event and the talent on the stage, who’s to say that there wasn’t an audience member having their own “Ultra Lame Fest moment” right then – looking up at the stage now, only to headline it years later. If the first 90 years of The Paramount have shown us anything, it’s never count anything out.
On the heels of the 10-year anniversary of Death Cab for Cutie's sixth studio album, we look into the criminally underrated Narrow Stairs.
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