Twenty One Pilots: ferociously entertaining

A Twenty One Pilots concert is a thing of the most remarkable energy and intensity. On paper, it is a simple affair — Joshua Dun’s drumkit is front and centre on a huge stage, with a microphone stand and an occasionally-used piano for Tyler Joseph, who plays bass and — and why not? — ukulele as well as singing and rapping.

But to reduce the concert just to these elements would fail, criminally, to do it justice. Dun plays his drums with power and ferocity, with depth and subtlety, creating a rich, detailed, textured and layered backdrop for the songs that Joseph builds upon this foundation. And the songs are varied and complex — set-opener Jumpsuit, the lead single from new album Trench, approaches terrifying, a song filled with menace and brooding threat, while Neon Gravestones is an entirely more delicate, intimate number, Joseph playing surprisingly sweet melodies on the piano while Dun dials back his drumming, still providing rhythmic interest but without the bludgeoning intensity of the duo’s more powerful numbers. Taxi Cab, apparently the oldest song on the setlist, could almost be Easy Like Sunday Morning, not that the majority of the totally-sold-out Spark Arena crowd, many with the yellow shoulder-tape and bandanas of the Skeleton Clique, would know Lionel Richie. Even I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You made an appearance — this was a show that defied, at the very least, my expectations.

This being a Joseph-Dun two-hander — certainly no other musicians were apparent — there’s a lot of reliance, understandably, on pre-recorded backing tracks, but such is the nature of modern live performance. But Joseph is still, behind the skeleton masks and the balaclavas, an old-school entertainer. He and Dun know how to structure a show to build and sustain excitement in their audience, pulling out every trick from appearing in the stands half-way through Fairly Local to playing the two sides of the audience off against each other during a sing-along to the falsetto bits of My Blood, picking out along the way three dads in the audience to dad-dance on the screens beside the stage. Joseph does, of course, indulge in the “You’re the best” schtick, telling the audience that this is the band’s last show of the year, and “there’s nowhere we’d rather be than right here,” and a more cynical reviewer would want to ask “Where’s ‘right here,’ Tyler?”

But It was impossible to be cynical last night. As Dun played a snare-drum solo, not something one often hears, but, on the strength of this effort something one would like to hear a little more often, to lead into We Don’t Believe What’s On TV, it’s increasingly obvious that a Twenty One Pilots show is a something a little special. When a three-piece drumkit bolted to a board is handed to the front rows of the mosh pit, who then hold it over their heads, and Dun climbs on top to play Morph, you know that this is a band — a duo, really, but with the energy of a much larger outfit — who know exactly how to create an event that will entirely satisfy their audience.

Also deserving of an honourable mention was Drapht. Silly name notwithstanding, this Aussie hip-hop artiste, Paul Ridge to his mum, opened up the show with what, again, on paper should have been quite underwhelming — himself on vocals, and backed just by a drummer and a guitarist. But again, what could be unremarkable can in the right hands be quite outstanding, and I’d recommend his new album, Arabella Street, even if you’re not a particularly keen hip-hop fan — his rock and blues roots shine through more often than you’d imagine.

Simon reviewed Twenty One Pilots’ last show in Auckland, a couple of years ago, and I was quite jealous that I missed that one. I’m very, very glad that I made it to last night’s show.

Many thanks to Chris Zwaagdyk for shooting last night’s show for Crave!

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