Photo by Gary Miller

Photo by Gary Miller

Austin, Texas
June 23, 2019

Here’s the deal: we’re going to take two guys — one on drums and the other on just bass guitar (or the ukulele or standup piano) and they’re going to fill an arena with a giant sound and captivate them all with action, visuals and performance. Never gonna happen, right?

Wrong. The two lads known as Twenty One Pilots (most often spelled with slash-zero’s for the letters O or drawn with two sets of parallel lines) achieve what seems impossible and they make it look easy, fun and cool doing it. Drummer Josh Dun plays/commands samples from an iPad (I presume) and fills the room with his frenetic and hard hitting drumming. Dude gets a cardio workout in just the first two songs, but keeps it up for a full two hours. Tyler Joseph roams the place like a 20-something Bono. He starts off the show by squatting on a flaming car and singing “Jumpsuit” out of his black ski mask. It’s a great rousing song to set the tone and rock the place out. Not long after he and Dun are riding risers high up above the stage. Next thing you know he’s trust falling into a large black area (presumably a soft-landing trampoline) with a loud bang and all of a sudden spotlights reveal him standing and singing over the edge of the upper mezzanine/third-story balcony. Magic!

These two guys simply take over the arena and treat it like it’s their living room. Whether it’s strolling from either end of the stage, prancing on the catwalk, doing vertical crowd surfing, running across the floor or performing from a separate stage at the back of the room, they take all the territory and make it their own. As performers, they make a good case study on how to do it. As musicians, they keep a sharp edge the entire show even during the purposeful tender moments on piano or short-lived pauses. If it wasn’t the proximity or physical position of the roaming Joseph, it was the multiple and close-up Go-Pro style cameras on the drumset or elsewhere that kept the duo larger than life and present in the moment on the big screens.

If this was your very first concert experience, it would practically ruin live music for you. They set the bar that high. Most any subsequent concert will be a letdown after this.

After the opening “Jumpsuit,” they keep things going at a brisk pace with “Levitate” and then the heavy grooving of “Fairly Local.” Soon after they’re romping through “Stressed Out” – complete with cool vocal effects and video. This is the start of a pretty lengthy set of numbers with Joseph holding or playing his ukulele. Not only did Joseph change instruments from time to time (bass to uke to piano to tom drums), he also donned several different outfits. For the uke set, he came out in a Hawaiian print light robe and grinning white sunglasses. “Heathens” and “Legend” deliver more familiar tunes. Later on in the show, Joseph remarks that it seems as if most people in the room have been listening to Twenty One Pilots for a long time. This was probably because almost all 10,000-plus people in the room were singing along to every word so much so that he was able to let the audience have several verses and chorus parts. He gratefully thanks us for coming. This artist is riding high on success, but he gets it.

After “Legend” he humbly shared one of a few poignant moments of the subtle message of hope the band delivers: “I wrote this song for my grandfather. He passed away last year and he told me, “It’s worth it — to keep fighting to the bitter end.” A simple point. Not too dramatic in its delivery, but not unnoticed.

They romped through “We Don’t Believe What’s on TV,” complete with awesome imagery on the two large front-facing video screens and one per side for those in the side/back mezzanine seats, which included Dun standing up from his kit and blowing the trumpet. “The Hype” was next. Joseph then stood at center stage with his robe draped over his head the same way every child has done with his shirt as a youngster, leading the crowd through the Jamaican-tinged “Lane Boy.”

Dun discarded his shirt, revealing the sweat that he’d been expending for almost an hour. The show wasn’t even half over but it had already taken the audience in their back pocket on a ten-song journey. This duo is hard working and in shape. I can’t imagine them putting on this kind of show without being in tip-top shape. The energy coming from the audience between and during every song was easily the equivalent of guzzling a Red Bull or Monster every minute.

A giant light truss that stretched the length of the floor was drenching the general admission audience on the floor with blue as it began to lower. It descended lower and lower, as if it would just collapse on the audience, but then it was clear that this truss was also a cat walk with a diagonal ladder extending towards the stage. Joseph climbed it and performed “Nico and the Niners” from atop the catwalk as he strolled to the back of the arena by the sound board area. There was another small stage back there! I wonder if it suddenly sucked to be a the front of the stage, as Dun joined his bandmate on the other side of the arena. Truly the last were first and the first last (at least for a short set). Piano and drums. “Smithereens,” “Neon Gravestones,” “Bandito” and “Pet Cheetah” from Trench sounded great.

The duo made its way back to the front stage and tore through “Ride,” which included both Joseph and Dun standing on top of the piano. Dun was just up there to set up and execute his backflip. Later Joseph ran from the stage towards the piano in full parkour mode, landing one foot atop the piano to launch himself in a full hurdler jump. Dude caught some mean air.

In another display or feat, the band seemed to save its higher pitched, high falsetto songs for the end of the show. The crowd was also still in the moment, offering many call backs at every opportunity. Pretty amazing, considering the show had exceeded the 90-minute mark and didn’t appear to be slowing down.

Dunn did a nice drum solo that paid homage to another famous duo  The White Stripes  with a short cover of “Seven Nation Army” that the crowd sang along to like a giant European soccer stadium. Nice touch.

If I failed to mention how into it the crowd was, this was apparent during the way too long wait between openers Bear Hands and the start of the Twenty One Pilots show. The arena crowd went into many impromptu waves that swept around the room several times, turning into a star-wave when the lights dimmed and several people in each individual section stood up with their smartphone flashlights sparkling across the room. This crowd came for an experience and got one.

A lyric video of sorts told the audience that the night was coming to an end and that we would all die someday. They launched into the somber “Leave the City” as everyone sang along with “I’ll stay alive.” Several audience members by the front were sporting homemade signs and writing on their hands that said “I’m alive.” Here was hope again rearing its beautiful head in solidarity with the band’s clear message. Twenty One Pilots puts on a show and lifts the spirits of everyone in the room with fun and purpose.

What a night. They ended with “Trees” and it was time to go home some three hours after arriving. Bear Hands was a pretty good fit as an opener, though they certainly stayed confined on a small part of the large stage. During the last song, “Giants,” lead singer Dylan Rau took his tall frame onto the ground, laying there and singing, “I’m loving you more” and then raised his legs straight up into an elbow-supported stand while still singing. That was cool.

Twenty One Pilots put on a must-see show. Get to know the music a little, because you might feel like a stranger at a Dashboard Confessional show, not knowing the words that seemingly everyone else in the room does. Kudos to the new dynamic duo. You’ll love them even more after seeing ’em live.
Review by Doug Van Pelt. Photos by Gary Miller, courtesy the Frank Erwin Center.