Squint through the tape hiss and scattered crowd noise on Live at the Pacer House, a recently-discovered recording of the first-ever Death Cab for Cutie show, and you can hear the blueprint of the band already in their nascent stages. Recorded on a dictaphone by Trevor Adams, in front of an audience of 25 people, the band is still green, but the essential ingredients of their formula are already in place: Ben Gibbard’s knack for gently-surging vocal melodies, the delicately-woven latticework of guitar chords that support their best songs.
The tender take on set opener “Your Bruise” is an indication of what’s to come: where the final version heaved into a full-band pitch-and-roll, the rendition here is exhaled like a sigh; Gibbard feels his way around the vocal melody cautiously, notes from his guitar drifting down like a soft snowfall. When the whole band joins in for “President of What?” it feels loose and clattering, a charming contrast to the recorded version’s sleek, streamlined approach. Here, the synth wheezes in the background like a melodica, rather than providing the shiny veneer that defines the version on Something About Airplanes, the band’s 1998 debut. Pacer House’s high point occurs at roughly the halfway mark, with a wrenching rendition of “Champagne from a Paper Cup.” The skeletal arrangement only serves to underscore the song’s deep sense of hurt, and the band, even in their first performance, are able to make it boil without exploding. Gibbard’s young voice sounds bereft as it wearily navigates the lyrics’ darkness. On Pacer House, Death Cab consists of Gibbard, Chris Walla, Nick Harmer on bass and Walla’s friend Nathan Good on drums. The performance was meant to be a one-off, but after hearing the raw power of this set, it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t have continued.
All of the band’s proceeds from this recording will be donated to the Aurora Commons, a Seattle non-profit that seeks to build strong communities by providing educational resources, food, and life and career guidance to residents in and around Seattle’s Aurora Avenue. That local focus is fitting for an album whose overall feeling is one of friendship and community (it was, after all, a house show). Pacer House is rough and unpolished—early in the set, someone takes the mic to inform the audience that there’s a red Honda Accord outside that needs to be moved—but that only adds to the album’s intimacy. Rather than some spruced-up, airtight, fixed-in-post “live album,” Live at the Pacer House instead presents a kind of fly-on-the-wall directness. To listen to it is to feel what it was like to be present when one of indie rock’s most significant bands took their first tentative steps.