- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2006

From the outside, indie rockers Death Cab for Cutie seem to have driven their vehicle well over the music industry’s established speed limit. In just a few years, the group has emerged from the indie underground and become a Grammy-nominated four-piece band hailed on music magazine covers and by “The O.C.” character Seth Cohen.

But to band members and longtime fans (both of which will be in the house for the group’s shows Monday and Tuesday at DAR Constitution Hall), the trajectory looks a little different.

In fact, the “group” started nearly a decade back as lead singer Ben Gibbard’s solo project — and yes, it was so long ago that he actually put out a cassette, not a CD or an MP3.

The tape, for which Mr. Gibbard enlisted guitarist and four-track producer Chris Walla and bassist Nick Harmer (both still part of the gang), took the title “You Can Play These Songs with Chords.” Its success launched the formation of a formal band that then recorded “Something About Airplanes” for the Barsuk label in 1998.

While the team tinkered with their lineup, they continued to produce albums that upped the ante (“We Have the Facts And We’re Voting Yes” and “The Photo Album”). Then, in 2003, they finally found a suitable fourth passenger in drummer Jason McGerr. With the final piece in place, Death Cab put the pedal to the metal, releasing “Transatlanticism” and eventually their 2005 major label debut, “Plans.”

With some 744,000 copies of their latest disc sold, appearances on “Saturday Night Live” and “The O.C.” (of course), media coverage galore and heavy touring, the quartet is certainly in the spotlight — but the guys are quick to point out just how hard and long they’ve had to sweat to get there.

Mr. McGerr, who has only been with the group for around four years, says that despite his brief tenure (when compared to that of the group’s founding members), it hasn’t felt like warp speed. “When you work with your head down and your nose to the grindstone,” he explains, “it’s hard to know what’s happening. It’s been really gradual [actually].”

In fact, Mr. McGerr says the musicians, whom he refers to as “just four guys in a band traveling down the road,” still have moments where they think, “Are we really doing this?”

He does acknowledge that media — in particular, a show like “The O.C.” — can expose massive numbers of folks to new music and in some ways dictate the ebbs and flows of the music industry. “I feel like the tide’s coming in and out a hell of a lot faster these days,” Mr. McGerr says.

For that reason, he adds, “I’m just happy that I’m a rock instead of a pebble. … We’ve been a band for nine years.”

• • •

Take a bunch of white kids from Asheville. N.C.. Then, mix in childhoods spent absorbing Appalachia’s rich musical heritage, school-year forays into jazz, rock and other genres plus trips to West Africa as adults to study traditional music. Next, throw the combo in the spin cycle and when the buzzer chimes, you’ll get Toubab Krewe, a group that plays warm, African-infused instrumental rock and whose collective identity lands somewhere between jam band and cultural exchange commission.

On Sunday evening at 8, they’ll bring their trademark sound to Jammin’ Java in Vienna.

The quintet joined forces in early 2005, and since then has quickly developed a loyal grass-roots following by touring “pretty much nonstop,” says musician Justin Perkins. “We’ve been going constantly for about a year and half with only little breaks here or there,” he says.

In addition to playing clubs across the country, Toubab has rocked several high-profile festivals — perhaps most notably two consecutive years at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. While they only played a small tent their first time around, this year they headlined Thursday night, playing to a crowd that Mr. Perkins estimates to be around 20,000 or 30,000 people. At that moment, he says, they saw that living out of a suitcase was finally paying off.

Perhaps one of the reasons Toubab’s music is catching on is because it’s so dancey, and there are no lyrics to get in the way. It’s organic, almost tribal. “In my mind,” says Mr. Perkins, who plays electric guitar, ngoni and kora (both string instruments from West Africa), “it’s bringing people a really different style of music — the traditional African beat — but making it accessible to them.”

For listeners more familiar with African melodies who might be worried about the group’s authenticity, Mr. Perkins can assuage their fears.”We’ve gotten nothing but good words from our teachers. Something they’ve definitely reinforced is if you play from your heart, then you can’t go wrong.”

In fact, one of Toubab’s West African pedagogues, Lamine Soumano, is currently touring with them. They must be doing something right.

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