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Review Fri Dec 04 2015
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...and that mean's it's time for obligatory radio-sponsored holiday concerts to take over the city! Last night at the Aragon, WKQX hosted the first of its four "Nights We Stole Christmas," featuring Twenty One Pilots. The place was packed to bursting to see one of the hottest alternative acts in the country, a duo whose next tour has already sold out a June date at Allstate Arena.
After a quick introduction from the WKQX folks (including one man who was wearing Ralphie's bunny suit from A Christmas Story), LA-based Grizfolk took the stage with as many members as the next two acts combined and a far different aesthetic from that which would fill the Aragon for the remainder of the evening. Whereas K. Flay and Twenty One Pilots could be described as hip-hop acts with rock sensibilities, Grizfolk is the inverse--even with the vast electronic elements that form the backdrop for their music and the massive synthesizers of Sebastian Fritze, the band's lifeblood remains the guitar. And Fredrik Eriksson absolutely shredded, particularly on a money cover of Kendrick Lamar's "Money Trees." Meanwhile, Adam Roth's vocals channeled the gritty Americana of a young John Mellencamp on songs like "Vagabonds" and "Bounty On My Head," a rich swell of chords backing him up with infectious, wordless melodies that give Grizfolk the feel of a roots band going through an electro-pop obsession. The band did a nice job engaging with the audience, getting a surprisingly large portion to sing the hook of "The Ripple," and their on-stage dynamic worked well when Roth and Eriksson faced off in miniature jam battles as Fritze, bassist Brendan James, and drummer Bill Delia held down the rhythmic fort. That said, I could have done with more extended instrumental sections, which were the band's strength when I saw them play in Nashville in April. Given the circumstances, though--their style was well outside the taste I'd expect out of Twenty One Pilots' fans--Grizfolk put on a solid show that probably won them a few new listeners.
The mood of the room shifted significantly when K. Flay, a Wilmette native who's been singing and rapping out of the Bay Area since graduating from Stanford in 2007, relieved Grizfolk. Stylistically, K. Flay comfortably fits the alternative hip-hop, genre-bending niche that the evening's headliners have come to dominate--perhaps with "schizoid pop" on the rise, RCA will regret releasing her from her contract in 2013. Tongue-twisting raps with highly personal, introspective lyrics dominate her music, and she delivers them with considerable vocal dexterity in a brooding rasp that sounds vaguely reminiscent of Lil' Wayne, as if she's been chain smoking and downing a fifth of whiskey daily for the past five years (as far as I know, she hasn't). The music backing her was equal parts industrial rock and trip-hop, and for the most part it drove so hard that I thought K. Flay had repeatedly stabbed the genre of nu metal, buried it, and then resurrected its zombified, rightfully paranoid carcass with electronic body parts. Highlights of K. Flay's set included her straight up hip-hop collaboration with Louis the Child, "It's Strange," and the strutting "Thicker Than Dust."
I went into last evening's show knowing that Twenty One Pilots has a reputation for breathtaking live performances--MisterWives' bassist Will Hehir told me how awed he was by the band when I interviewed him in October--but the band surpassed even my lofty expectations. The most striking aspect of their show was the sheer athleticism of frontman Tyler Joseph, which brought to mind a young David Lee Roth with nimbler jumps and fewer karate kicks. The hops he developed playing high school basketball clearly haven't waned. At one point he vaulted clear over the front of his piano, landed directly on the stool, and launched into the chorus of "Holding on to You" without a break--it was the most incredible physical display I've witnessed in person at a concert. Not to be outdone, drummer Josh Dun stuck the landing on a backflip off the piano, and both Joseph and Dun ventured out atop the crowd at various points, Dun absolutely mashing a minimal drum kit and Joseph sprouting like a God from the arms of Twenty One Pilots' adoring legion of fans.
The audience was a huge part of the show's success. Twenty One Pilots has built a totally obsessed fan base that calls itself the Skeleton Clique, and they turned out in force at the Aragon. A sea of hands followed Joseph's every movement; an ocean of voices sang out every word to every song, not missing a beat even in the complex raps of "Heavydirtysoul" or "Migraine;" spontaneous chants of "TY-LER!" bloomed at various silent points in the set. At the end of the show, when Joseph climbed a tower in the middle of the floor and stood atop it with his hand over his masked face, well over three thousand phones pointed up at him. I almost thought Joseph was going to leap and trust that a few members of the congregation he's built would sacrifice their lives to keep him from hitting the floor and dying on impact.
The music itself was quintessential Twenty One Pilots--the voice of neurotic, white teens and twenty-somethings looking to emotionally charged melodies, acerbically introspective lyricism, and the pounding beats of Dun as methods of expressing the existential angst that has clutched people their age for decades. Joseph has found a masterful way to connect with them and become their inner demons, expressing blithe despair through his ukulele in "We Don't Believe What's On TV" and "The Judge" and creating opportunities for temporary self-annihilation in "Migraine" and "Car Radio," the latter of which had breakdowns that approximated an EDM festival. Joseph named the band after a line in Arthur Miller's play All My Sons, and it's rather amazing to see that the anguish Miller expressed in his plays could be made into such a universally uplifting art form. Twenty One Pilots' music serves as a battle against that anguish, and in a live setting, the Skeleton Clique came out decisively victorious, at least for the moment. Smoke cannons and a rain of confetti confirmed the triumph.
All was as it should be at a concert--the good guys win, everyone leaves happy, distracted from the troubles of life by the thrill of music. Now everyone's on their own to sustain that mood until it's actually time for Christmas.