In 2013, two young men from Ohio took the stage in a small Kansas college town, in a small venue with a capacity of just over 1,000 people. The small band on this small stage, in a small city, brought one of the biggest shows I had ever seen. The crowd, mostly of college students and indie scene kids lost their minds and were blown away by the heart and energy this band was giving them. For over an hour, these two kids seemed to be giving every single thing they had. The audience couldn’t help but become intoxicated by the band’s music, passion and presence. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
On that night, I knew I would always be a Twenty One Pilots fan.
Three years have passed and today, Twenty One Pilots are one of the biggest bands in the world. After the massive success of their third album Blurryface and the breakout single “Heathens” for the film Suicide Squad, this band has grown into chart-topping superstars. They have moved on from playing tiny clubs in small college towns and found themselves playing the biggest arenas all over the world.
Over the past two weeks, I had an opportunity to see them play two of the U.S’s biggest cities in two very different areas of the country. The first of the two shows were in Los Angeles at the world famous Forum and the second was the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri. I wanted to see the differences from show to show. The differences in the crowd and the reception, and if there was any difference in what the band brought to each show.
The first opportunity to see them was in Los Angeles, California. There is always a different energy at an L.A. show. Los Angeles is the entertainment capital of the world and usually, bands play it that way. There is always an opportunity for a surprise guest and often times the bands are playing at home in front of friends and family. The L.A. gig for Twenty One Pilots was a special one, as drummer Josh Dun has moved from their hometown Columbus, Ohio and now lives in Los Angeles. They even mentioned it felt like a homecoming for them as they had family and friends in the building.
That being said, I expected an incredible performance from them. But how can a band that gives everything they have every night possibly give any more? I was excited to find out.
This was the first time I was seeing Twenty One Pilots in over a year. I had seen them play Bonnaroo 2015 on the largest stage of the festival. They were given the unfortunate task of playing the hottest time of the day during the final day of the four day festival. Playing this time slot when most of the attendees had been camping and sleeping on the ground for four days is usually not the recipe for the most bonkers, energy packed set of the festival. But leave it to these guys to deliver. Tens of thousands showed up to brave the heat and the massive Sunday crowd rivaled that of a Saturday night headliner creating one of the best sets of the weekend.
A year has passed but the band has blown up even bigger. “Stressed Out” and “Ride” has dominated airplay and made the band incredibly marketable and well known. One night I received a text message from my Father.
Dad: Heard a good band yesterday. 21 pilots. Heavy Dirty Soul. I liked it.
Me: Of course Dad, thats one of my favorite bands. They are incredible live. Dad: What a good band! I’ll have to try to see them.
That was the moment I knew Twenty One Pilots was not in Kansas anymore.
The Forum show started with Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun in matching red blazers, black ties over white shirts and their patented black ski masks. They have always started their show with some sort of mask. This is a personal touch they have which is a nice signature, but the masks are meant for the audience to rally behind their lyrics and what they represent. This is at the heart of what makes Twenty One Pilots truly special. There is a sort of connection they have with their audience which is unmatched. Their lyrics and music deals with a myriad of issues that are so relatable and appealing.
Their songs are not materialistic in any way, they don’t deal with getting girls or even cliches of heartbreak and relationships. Instead, they deal with issues like self-confidence, depression and family. Listening to their album, you get a glimpse into who they are and the problems they are dealing with. It makes them insanely relatable and easily likable.
These songs have made them incredibly popular in the teenage demographic but also far reaching beyond that. Where I was sitting in The Forum, there was a row in front of me filled with children ages six to 12. The man next to me was in his 60’s and was seeing Twenty One Pilots for the first time. The girl next to me was in her teens with her father, who seemed just as excited as she was. This is the mark of a great band. Their reach is something far beyond one demographic.
Nine songs into the set, the band had already done so much, including a brilliant slight of hand magic trade that I will choose not to spoil. It is clear their energy level and creativity has reached a new level. They finish off “Lane Boy”, with the Dun’s insane drumming outro and walk off the stage and into the audience. The entire arena is blistering with screams of teenage girls in shrill excitement from being so close to their favorite band. They are walking to the small stage in the back rear of the floor.
This stage is reminiscent of the one from their incredibly inventive “Ode to Sleep” music video which chronicles the band’s early days of playing in front of 12 people all the way to their rise to glory. They start with “Ode to Sleep”, which transitions to a medley of seven songs from their first self-titled album and second, Regional at Best. This is the most raw moment of their show. It gives them an opportunity to bring it back to where it all began, clearly showing they know their roots and will never forget them.
After moving to back to the main stage, the band brings back out their opening acts Chef’Special and Mutemath. Together they play a medley of cover songs which provide a lighter fare and comedic part of the night. These covers include Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” This part of the show is great because it gives the audience a chance to see the lighter side of the two and also the interaction between TOP and the supporting acts.
What follows the covers was the two members of Twenty One Pilots at their absolute best. The transition between “Ride” into “Stressed Out” received the biggest audience reactions of the night. This band was at the top of the game before they released these songs, but these two songs elevated them to the level they so richly deserved. They treat these songs live with that knowledge and respect and the level of audience interaction they allow into them is what brings their show to another level. At the end of “Ride”, they bring out one of the best tricks they have in their back pocket. They bring out a set of drums on a wooden plank and set it on top of the front few rows of the audience. Drummer Josh surveys the area to make sure it is safe and he stands on the plank which is being supported by the hands of the audience underneath him as he then rips into an insane drum solo riding his audience. It is incredible to watch and exhilarating.
As the show concludes the band comes out for their encore of two songs. The first, “Goner,” which is even better live than on the album. The emotion that Joseph has is overwhelmingly honest. No song does he appear more vulnerable than “Goner.” After “Goner” at the Forum show, Joseph explains how they have finished every show with the same song for years, including one show where they played in a friend’s bedroom. That song is “Trees” and the reason they choose this is it provides them with a second bolt of energy to finish out their show in the best way.
The song, like “Goner,” is immensely superior live than on the studio album. This song live, is everything that makes Twenty One Pilots one of my favorite bands of all-time. It is a song in a genre you can’t quite describe. It starts slow then builds to a beat that you can’t help but jump up and down to. It is a song with a true emotional message and something that deep down is inspiring.
When done live, they bring out another trick that separates them as the best. As they conclude the show, two planks with just a single drum are placed on the audience. This time, both Tyler and Josh climb on them and play the drum. At this moment, smoke blows from the stage and confetti rings down. It is a ceremonious celebration filled with crowd participation as they are propping up both. In a way this is incredibly symbolic of the show and what they present. They can’t do this without the support of their crowd, literally. The connection they have with their crowd is unmatched by any other band I have ever seen. As much as their fans love them. It is painfully obvious they love their fans just as much.
As I walked to my seat for my second Twenty One Pilots show 10 days later in St. Louis, Missouri. I knew what the night had in store. I looked around the audience at the smiling faces of the anticipating masses of fans knowing they had the night of their lives waiting for them. Behind me was a group of 30-somethings seeing TOP for the third time. In front of me was a flock of high school girls that couldn’t wait. Next to me was a family with two kids under the age of ten and their parents who knew every word to every song, just like their kids. It seemed like every age-range, race and ethnicity was in this concert and they were all just as jacked as the person next to them. 1800 miles separated The Forum to the Scottrade Center but the energy in the building was just as palpable.
The setlist was the same as The Forum show and while this might usually bother me, it did not this time. I completely understand with the rigorous technical elements and a lot of the tricks the band does on stage that this show is a monumental effort. The flow of the show is perfect and there is never a dull moment and everything so wonderfully goes into the next.
I had my wonders if their energy would be any different. They had played seven shows in that ten days and had been on the road since the end of May. It would be easy to think that maybe they wouldn’t be able to bring to St. Louis what they brought to their new hometown of Los Angeles.
This crowd was even more raucous and along for the ride as the L.A. show. Even during their back to the basics part of their set, where they played from their lesser known cuts from their two albums, the audience knew every word. These were die hard fans. The energy these fans were giving them was to the roof and the two were giving it right back to them.
Tyler Joseph has mastered the art of letting the audience be the third member of the band. Nearly ever single song Joseph knows the perfect time to come off the microphone and let the audience sing alone. These moments are jaw dropping and incredible. Each one is as staggering as the one before. Usually at a show a band will let the crowd do this on their singles or signature songs from years before. Joseph and Dun don’t waste any time, during the very first song of their show they let the audience sing the entire chorus by themselves. The first song is “Heavydirtysoul,” a song that was never released as a single. They know their fans and they trust them.
As the show goes on, the audience loves every minute of it. Their magic trick at the start of the show blows the audience minds and gets me just as excited as I was the first time. The covers make the audience laugh. Joseph running through the crowd and singing over everyone for “Car Radio” thrills them all. It is a masterfully flowing show that I am sure is just as thrilling as it is draining for the two members who perform it every night.
But something special happened at this show that didn’t happen in Los Angeles. Before “Trees” the final song of the set, Joseph addressed the audience. He seemed a lot more relaxed and comfortable than he did at The Forum show. He told the audience about how excited he and Josh were because Josh’s favorite cereal was waiting for him backstage, because their Amazon order had arrived. The audience laughed and were probably envious of the loads of cereal backstage to which Joseph said not to worry, they will have plenty to share afterwards. After the cereal spiel, Joseph confided to the audience.
He said when playing arenas like the Scottrade Center, he often thinks about what bands have played there before. He said that he doesn’t believe they are as talented as those bands and they don’t know if they believe they belong and deserve to play the same places those bands have played. But he then said that he does know one thing. He would pit his fans and the fans of Twenty One Pilots against any other bands fans any day. In that moment, you realise Twenty One Pilots is much more than just a band with an entertaining show and a few hits on the radio. They are much much more than that. This band is just as much about their fans and the show as they are any song. The connection and message that Joseph puts out at their show is one of acceptance and accomplishment. You can go to their show and jump up and down and sing and rap every word, scream and cry and laugh and feel like you have seen much more than just a band playing instruments and doing songs. They represent much more than that.
At the beginning of every show they come out in masks. These masks make them faceless men on stage in front of thousands. When they rip off these masks, they finally unveil themselves as the two men the masses came to see, even though they have become two of the most recognisable men making music today. Even though they have gone on from playing small clubs in Kansas to world famous arenas and very soon, a March tour in Australia and New Zealand. Even though they have all that, those masks still go back on. Their message has stayed the same since day one. They represent much more than two men. They represent something much bigger than music. They represent you. They represent me. They represent every single fan that makes their show something that can never ever be missed.
Twenty One Pilots will start their Australia/New Zealand tour March 24 in Wellington, New Zealand and wrap a seven show run in Perth on April 8. Tickets are on sale now.
Header Image: Jabari Jacobs.