Sad songs can rock, too. This antithetical approach to the often slouchy sulkiness of indie pop music was born out to excellent effect at Avalon on Saturday night, where coheadliners Death Cab for Cutie and Ben Kweller delivered vastly different but equally dynamic sets full of heartfelt emotions and brash and swaggering guitar-driven rock.
The two bands have been trading off headlining spots each night on tour, and their Boston stop found the Seattle-based atmospheric indie rock quartet Death Cab for Cutie closing the night with an hour-plus set that built with epic grandeur as they layered diffuse scribbles of tart guitar, chiming keyboards, and fragile vocals into a moody wash backed with a big, brassy rock beat.
While it took singer Ben Gibbard a few songs to warm up his distinctively delicate and wounded voice, the band members threw themselves right into their intense, textured set, which featured much of their breakout 2003 album, "Transatlanticism." They delivered "The Sound of Settling" as an angsty art-rock dance number with classic pop vocals and were majestically moody on "Transatlanticism," which built slowly with elegant piano and rippling guitar. The intensity continued through their encore, which included "Company Calls," with its passionate, almost whispered vocals, and "Blacking Out the Friction," which swelled with warbling piano and an infectious scratch of guitar over throbbing drums.
New York-based singer-songwriter Ben Kweller, who has built a reputation for indie pop with a playfully breezy insouciance, highlighted the harder-rocking sound he grew into on his second full-length album, "On My Way," released last month. He even retooled some of his older, classically poppy numbers into rockers full of big, tough guitar hooks.
Appearing to have a ball, Kweller crooned with quirky sincerity and wrung barbed, scrawling melodies out of his electric guitar, stomping and spinning around the stage like a fresh-faced Neil Young, during his short, energetic set. He stood with his legs widespread and pounded his keyboard on "How It Should Be (sha sha)" and made the hooks even thicker and grittier on "Wasted and Ready." New songs highlighted the increasing sophistication of his songwriting, as he delivered monster guitar riffs and achy, cracking vocals on "Believer" and swaggered through the tempo-shifting rocker "Ann Disaster."
Opener Willy Mason sounded like a less tortured Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes as he played an intimate set of bluesy, heartfelt protest songs that delivered societal commentary and romantic longing with clear, worn vocals over simple, bluesy guitar and his brother's countrified drum beats.