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Twenty One Pilots EMØTIONAL RØADSHØW WØRLD TØUR At Madison Square Garden, Thursday, August 11th, 2016, Reviewed

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You’ve heard of the stars being aligned right for a gig? Well, they couldn’t have been aligned any better for pop duo of the moment Twenty-One Pilots’ “Emotional Roadshow” tour, Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. Coming off their biggest album by far, Blurryface, which has been in the top ten since it was released back in March, with two hit singles, and a third, off the huge summer movie “Suicide Squad” waiting in the wings, they’ve sold out a US arena tour (Europe next) and topped it with this, the second of two nights in the hallowed home of all things big in live entertainment, for the end of their tour, and with family members in the house.

Yep, this was guitarist Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun’s moment and they didn’t waste much of it (only a drear oldies section on a smaller stage was a mistake). The two were less out to prove they ruled and more out to cement the conclusion of a magical run. As a non fan in the extreme, I left a believer. They had the energy of a Drake, with the super-duper staging of a Bieber, and the friendliness of a Paulie. And, the PG no swearing, no sex,  you’d expect from a band that identifies itself as Christian so parents weren’t shielding their children’s ears or blushing in embarrassment.

The entire evening had a gentleness as well as an obtuse teenybopperness to it, performance art for the alienated young at heart. It was a concept that fit well with opening band, Denmark’s Chef’s Special, sort of Sublime for seven year olds, and Mutemath… Mutemath I always took as being kinda serious heavy duty alt rockers, but watching singer Paul Meany do a handstand over his keyboards, man, they were all in. Two thirds of the way through Twenty One Pilots set, both bands joined the twosome, to perform “Twist And Shout” and Bieber’s “Love Yourself” “my mama don’t like you and she likes everyone, I don’t like to admit that I love this song” -Tyler lyric changed!),  as well as a Celine Dion and House Of Pain covers. The entire stage was overrun with an exuberance that can’t be faked. Earlier Tyler had covered “Can’t Help Falling In Love” on his ukulele… so the Beatles (well, the Isley Brothers, but they don’t know that) and Elvis Presley were given the nod. One part handing in your credentials, one part nodding to the traditions.

Last night, Twenty One Pilots were like the Christian Contemporary Music band of your dreams. Their fans call it schizoid pop, as it moves through taped beats and samples, rap (Tyler: “I rap because I can’t fit all the words in otherwise”), pop scopes, piano ballads, dance freak outs and more, some of the sound this is the modern world computer generated. But still, CCMish. The thing to remember about CCM, is that it is the 70s porn movie soundtrack of pop, it sounds unreally faux-ish. If you ever listen to that execrable Hillsong mob, you will understand what I mean, it might be about pop music but it isn’t pop music. The same with CCM country style. It isn’t spirituals or Gospel, but a two pronged attack on our brain cells, one part sado-masochistic hero worship, one part interventionist Jesusism, and the final part is Jesus take the wheel abdication of all responsibilities to a greater power. In other words, it is creepiness defined and it has the bombastic sexual groveling in the rockers, and the story of us, imaginary storytelling in the ballads: all touchdown Jesus let’s share a beer,I woke up in love with Jesus this morning,  without you I’m nothing, self loathing original sin stuff. The last thing teenagers working their way to self-realization need. But Twenty One Pilots don’t have their Godhead thrills in quite that way. Dressed in blurry face making ski masks and a red suit, Tyler, who writes all the songs, set the tone with “Heavydirtysoul” -the “can you save my…” search for salvation in the middle of this alienated faked out character. Stopping only to bitch slap Drake, the beats plus rap track is an all out hit on the culture surrounding pop music. Simply, Tyler opened his show by telling us what they weren’t. When he claims everybody is Twenty One Pilots at the end of the evening, what he is suggesting is everybody has a higher purpose in life, so don’t get fooled into thinking you have to have it taken from you by either being or nothingness. None of this remotely connects with my world view, though it is certainly more useful than YOLO. In the past, this heaviness of TOP put me well off, but after seeing them live I forgive them because they never forget that fun is part of the parcel. After the third song of the evening, the stage hands put a black sheet over Tyler, there is a puff of smoke and he reappears in the upper balcony of the theatre. A neat trick and also a sense of both magic and make believe.

The entire evening had this very same mix and match between the magical and the make believe, and the theatre of realness. It was hard to tell where the music was coming from: if Tyler wasn’t at the keyboards, who was playing it? It must be all tapes, but where was the synthesizer, who was doing the programming? It is trickery to the greater good, and it left the two free to roam around the stage, making visual sleight of hand dreams come true for the young audience. Josh had a mini platform held by the GA fans in the middle of the audience, to play a drum solo, while earlier Tyler, somewhere between Jesus and Iggy Pop, walked on the upstretched palms of the audience into the midst of them.  Here is a prediction: TOP headline Jingle Ball this year: it is exactly that audience… and their parents.

Despite, or maybe because,  of the paranoid human android of a rap, mutating EDM sound, the young women and girls, were in safe yet not sanctimonious hands. It’s not that the god of TOP embraces human frailty, but rather that it stays in the distance as Ty and Josh work their way through life to reach It. This is heavy duty and thought provoking but the fans stay with them all the way, the “yeah yeah yeah” call and response during “We Don’t Believe What’s On TV”, just after the band’s slash and burn newbie “Heathens”, was such a positive affirmation of fan and band (the audience got their part at the first attempt). The song itself is minor league, but the hook indelible, and on stage it communes on its inability to be clear: “I used to say, ‘I wanna die before I’m old’, but because of you I might think twice” makes sense, but the rest of the song seems to come and go from nowhere.

And here in lies where Twenty One Pilots is a good band and not a great band: the material isn’t good enough to outlast itself. Whole swathes of songs need hard sell, action packed video thrills, costume changes, hide and go seek with their visages, but with zero sexual come on; from the second to the fourth song, the material can’t stand up to the light of day. If TOP had done with those songs what they had done with the midset oldies, played em straight, the show would have ground to a halt. They don’t, they use their Arena status to put on a show that works as a metaphor for TOP’s central conceit: when folks are in their teens, they are searching for a reason to be happy and a reason to give value to their lives,and TOP just about find it on the outskirts of their Christianity.  While the communal dumbing down of human experience leads to pointless hedonism, and organized religion insists upon a reflexive suspension of disbelief, TOP claim that faith without hedonism and hedonism without faith are dead ends in themselves. Live your life, for better or worse, firm in the belief that there is a greater purpose. Towards the end, they performed “Ride” and “Stressed Out” back to back, that is as in FIVE SONGS BEFORE THE ENCORE. So the kiddies can leave early if they have to is my bet, they are good guys.

With friends and family, victory in their grasp, MSG a haven for the joy of shared experience, Twenty One Pilots set themselves free, an ultimate Christian Contemporary Music concept so inclusive, the same way their music is so inclusive, it will make a believer of you because, after all, you only live once but you die forever.

Grade: B+

 

 

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