In "The New Year," the third song of Death Cab for Cutie's Sunday night concert at the Hollywood Bowl, frontman Ben Gibbard did what he does better than many of his indie-rock peers, sketching a detailed scene of emotional tension with only a handful of lyrics.
"So everybody put your best suit or dress on / let's make believe that we are wealthy for just this once," Gibbard sang, describing a group of twentysomethings coming to terms with the everyday disappointments of post-collegiate life. "Lighting firecrackers off on the front lawn as 30 dialogues bleed into one."
An hour later, as the Los Angeles Philharmonic backed Death Cab during its final tune, "Transatlanticism," Gibbard didn't need words to help us imagine the pyrotechnics.
They were exploding directly over his head.
A Seattle quartet that began releasing albums more than a decade ago, Death Cab has taken an old-fashioned route to mainstream success; for younger bands of the fast-moving MySpace era, its ideas about creative consistency and dogged road work must seem as quaint as the pen and paper inside Dad's briefcase.
"This one's from our first record, which is now 11 years old, and therefore an oldie," Gibbard confessed with a laugh before the group eased into "President of What?," a typically wistful cut from "Something About Airplanes."
All of that experience has made Death Cab one of the most dependable live acts in indie rock. Performing material from throughout its lengthy songbook -- including one track from its most recent release, this year's "The Open Door" EP -- Gibbard and his bandmates had no trouble Sunday adapting their precise jangle-pop arrangements to suit the Bowl's expansive dimensions.
When the L.A. Philharmonic joined the group for seven tunes, Death Cab's music didn't seem overpowered, even during the folky "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," which Gibbard played solo on acoustic guitar.
Yet for all its literal and lyrical fireworks, Sunday's concert was woefully short on the figurative kind; Death Cab's hard-won competence ensured a solid show but also a somewhat dull one, with little of the fanfare you'd expect from a band making its Hollywood Bowl debut.
Gibbard managed to work up some drama during "I Will Possess Your Heart," the creepy-sensitive single from last year's "Narrow Stairs," which the singer introduced as "a love song about when you love someone and they just don't love you back." The sight of one especially enthusiastic dancer being escorted out by security -- very possibly a first at a Death Cab for Cutie gig -- helped to bolster the sense of occasion. Mostly, though, the band's performance seemed like just another day at the office.
Opening the show with a brief set of catchy, caffeinated power pop, Vancouver, Canada's New Pornographers foreshadowed Death Cab's respectfully underwhelmed vibe. "I don't know if you guys know this, but this is a very famous venue," frontman A.C. Newman deadpanned.
Tegan and Sara, the night's second warm-up act, sounded fine playing its jagged folk-pop songs. But the band's frontwomen, lesbian twins from Canada, were much more entertaining in their between-song banter, particularly when they described their mother's first visit to L.A. and their hunch that she might be a closeted lesbian.
Unlike the majority of Sunday's show, the revelation felt one of a kind.