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Twenty One Pilots @ Save Mart Center, Fresno CA 02/14/17

It was Valentine’s Day and this concert was our couple’s outing. My wife and I are casual admirers of Twenty One Pilots. My first exposure to them was the single “Tear in my Heart.” It was a quirky single, danceable and fun. It’s rare for a big name in the rock genre to tour this area of California, so I jumped on the chance to be able to see this concert locally. This was a younger rock fan’s show. Meaning, there was no wait time for alcohol! The day after the concert I was telling my buddy at work (yes, I went in to work the next morning) that it had been a very long time since I had experienced a show where the majority of the audience wasn’t old enough to drink and probably had school the next morning. Back to the group, this duo is part of a new wave of alternative rock and yet it’s unfair to classify them that way, as they bridge multiple genres. However, their sound is heavily associated with alternative hip-hop, electropop with some dancehall and island flavorings. Multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Tyler Joseph’s singing style wasn’t something that I’m normally into. Much of the time, his singing borders on sing-songy quasi rapping. Quirky and off-beat, but it helps give this duo a unique identity among their peers in the alt-rock world. Bottom line, their sound is fun and energetic with introspective lyrics, and it was impressive to see a newer group that isn’t a country or mainstream pop act fill an arena, especially in this area. The Save Mart Center was FULL. My eyes bugged out.

This tour was called the Emotional Road Show. Like I had previously stated, while the music can be fun, it can also be touching and through provoking, just listen to “Goner” for an idea of their deeper lyrical reaches. Fun, melodic and accessible, however Twenty One Pilots are not a mainstream act. Granted, they’re Grammy winners and they’ve’ been around close to 10 years – I feel they continue to playfully flirt with the mainstream. “Ride” and “Stressed Out” were championed early on by the likes of ALTnation, however top 40 terrestrial radio played those songs to death, along with “Heathens.” I think It’s more fitting to call Twenty One Pilots a huge cult band. And the Central Valley youth were out en masse.

This group is great at doing the unexpected. These surprises were very original for an arena show. The live show is one of the most atypical concert productions my lady and I had ever witnessed. It’s a minimalistic show but it’s also very high tech. It’s also very interactive with unexpected crowd participation. The first surprise was multi-instrumentalist Tyler Joseph’s disappearing act. Near the close of “Hometown,” Tyler sat at the upright piano onstage and became draped with a dark colored sheet. He continued to sing and play piano. A short rest occurred and the spot lights quickly converged above us in section 217. A masked Tyler Joseph appeared above us, it was like he materialized out of thin air. He was wedged between the first row and the barrier, singing the outro to the song, lifting up his mask at song’s end and waving to the astonished crowd. We were freaking out. Wait, how the hell did he do that? Another great moment came when the entire arena shouted the ‘YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!’ portions of the ukulele flavored “We Don’t Believe What’s On TV.” We geeked out again when Josh Dunn crowd surfed…WITH his drum kit. Crew members brought out a secondary drum kit – the hardware and drums were fixed to a piece of plywood around 6’x6′. Another geek out moment when Josh’s did a drum battle with…himself? This was awesome. Josh Dunn soloed against a prerecorded video of himself. The timing and choreography made for a unique drum battle. Live Josh battled virtual Josh on screen. At another point in the set, a fan, Patrick, was brought onstage to battle Tyler in a game of Mario Kart. And the greatest, single most jaw dropping moment during the set was the 90s/00s mega medley. The group invited openers Judah & Lion onstage for a duet. The two groups bounced into a hoppin’ version of Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping,” a 90’s gem (or irritating POS, depending on your tastes). At the close of “Tubthumping,” the members of 21 Pilots and Judah & The Lion were joined by second opener Jon Bellion, and the all-star team slid into a swingin’ version of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity,” continuing to the blow the young minds in Save Mart Center. The guys did an excellent job of performing the songs true to form, in hindsight, they may have been singing over the actual recordings. The soul and New Jack Swing of “No Diggity” got the crowd grooving. Even Judah Akers, vocalist for Judah & The Lion, was busting out with some funky foot work on stage. The medley then transitioned into another classic, The Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love?” and the crowd continued to dig on the live DJ set that was being performed. Bellion smoothly crooned his way through Fergi’s parts and we continued to be awe-struck. And then, out of the nowhere, “Where is the Love?” comes to a close and the horn fanfare intro to House of Pain’s immortal “Jump Around” plays over the PA. That’s when the children of the 90s in the crowd truly lost their shit. All around us we could hear people yell “woah!” and “holy crap!” The entire arena jumped up and got down. The whole arena was bouncing and it was so cool seeing all the wide eyed, smiling faces. The concert was surprising, fun, and at the same time the guys could dial it down and show us their passionate and humble side. The most startling musical moment of the concert was Tyler’s poignant rendition of “Cancer,” a My Chemical Romance original. It was heartbreaking. There wasn’t any other way to describe it. Tyler sat at the upright piano and was bathed in dark blue light while he sang the melancholy yet stirring lyrics. The vocal delivery and the piano lines fit the song perfectly. Tyler made it his own song: soulful and bitter-sweet. The whole set went done amazingly well with my favorite selection being “Ride” off of Blurryface. Tyler played bass while Josh laid down a groove with sequencers in support. It was a thumping, fun performance, I just wish Tyler would hold that B note when singing the chorus, Instead he shortened it to a quarter note, letting the audience fill in. Minor gripe but still a unique concert.

My only major criticism about the concert was the duo’s reliance on backing tracks and sequencers. Ok, I get that there are only two guys in the group. But what may seem like a weakness is actually a strength for this group. Two performers leave an uncluttered stage setup. This minimalist approach serves the group and the production very well – the focus is on the two group members as well as the giant digital displays behind them. No distractions, no silly props or toys. The Central Valley still got one heck of treat.

 

 

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Spring Fling: Cage the Elephant/Silversun Pickups/Foals/Bear Hands @ Save Mart Center, Fresno CA 03/11/16

MAJOR props to the promoters and KFRR New Rock 104.1 for bringing the Spring Fling to the Central Valley, and for an amazingly reasonable price too. We enjoyed excellent reserved seats for around 40 bucks each. The Fresno Save Mart Center is the newer arena in the city. Most people are familiar with Selland Arena downtown. Save Mart Center is the more modern facility situated near the Fresno State University campus, home of the Bulldogs. It’s a 10,000 seater but the upper deck was curtained off for this show, and it seems to be the trend for most rock artists that roll through there. I’m estimating that left the ticket pool to around 6,000. From my perspective, the floor and lower level were mostly full by the time the headliner took the stage. Consequentially, curtained off area made the arena appear a bit cavernous. Some have called Save Mart Center an odd choice of venue (many feel that it’s more appropriate for pop and country acts), but I think it’s the only venue that can accommodate such a large floor GA crowd while offering reserved seating too. I personally prefer this arena to Selland, however, Selland offers a bit more leg room in the seated areas. This was an alternative rock quadruple bill. While this package featured 4 alt-rock artists, an impressive amount of variety could be found with each group. The first opener was Bear Hands from Brooklyn, NY. This group is one those new beacons of light in the genre. They have a wealth of critical and fan support online, with many bloggers and columnists hailing them as one of the new heroes of Indie Rock. Dylan Rau’s voice and the group’s quirkily accessible songs have given Bear Hands a unique identity in the Alt-Rock world. Personally, my only exposure to this group up to this point were the singles “Agora,” “2am” and the breakout “Giants.” Ted Feldman’s guitar part was the first thing that grabbed me about “Giants,” the group’s first single off the Distraction album. It was a quirky but catchy tune – it was like the group put a bunch of (seemingly) unrelated musical ingredients into a blender and out popped this tasty indie flavored brew. There was the rhythmic electronic intro, choppy, staccato-like vocals, an ODB name check, a funky bass hook, spacey keys, and a guitar riff that took me somewhere…where, I’m still not sure, but damn it was cool. Live, it was even more enthralling. I wasn’t the biggest fan of “2am” when it was first released but it translated well in a live setting, that throbbing bass groove was so cool, something to chill out to, smoke out to, etc. The group played a very convincing set, setting the bar pretty high as openers. The group’s set was a brief 30 minutes but they were talented and entertaining. I wished I’d caught a headlining show at Strummers a year or so ago. This set was a great appetizer.

Next up was Foals from the UK. The group rocked it, their atmospheric yet hard hitting music struck a deep chord with the audience. I keep seeing Facebook posts from attendees saying “Foals killed it,” “bring back Foals,” “Foals were awesome, we had no idea who they were,” etc. etc. While Bear Hands provided more traditional indie stylings, Foals offered a more sophisticated and musically proficient set (with a bit of bounce). Of all the groups performing this night, Foals boasted trickier arrangements, dramatic stops/starts, changing dynamics, catchy keyboard hooks, celestial guitar sounds, longer song lengths, a passionate singer, and one hell of a drummer…while incorporating sick bass grooves and dance rhythms (just check out “My Number” and try NOT to move to it.) It was like hearing the best of new wave, alternative and progressive rock. Their singer, the Greek born Yannis Philippakis, had one of the most compelling voices: gentle and melodic at times, low and brooding on other occasions, and then that scream that comes out of nowhere. Damn. Back to their drummer, which I love, it’s refreshing to see a talented drummer who can play tightly while also being able to groove. Technically proficient drummers have the bad habit of sounding boring. More isn’t always a good thing. Not Jack Bevan, who can lay down challenging parts while keeping a heart pounding and memorable groove, “Snake Oil” and “Inhaler” for example. Best snare sound of the night also goes to Jack Bevan, high pitched and full sounding without that metallic tinny quality. The entire kit sounded so focused with great attack, it had to be a Tama Starclassic Birch set, very hi-fi sounding. And that snare, wow. It had cut as well as tone. Regarding their set, “My Number” had won us over, but the center piece of the set, and pretty much the moment that FLOORED Erica and myself, was the mesmerizing “Spanish Sahara.” It was more like a music piece, rather than a song in the traditional sense. The alt-rock epic was like a slow burning flame, growing ever brighter and more intense. The song was also very cinematic, the sounds took you to a place, mentally. And the slow building tension rose up like a wave while Yannis delivered his plaintive, sorrowful vocals. When I think of “Spanish Sahara” I also think of songs like U2’s “Bad,” King Crimson’s “Starless” and Radiohead’s “Exit Music.” Slow building, sentimental and dramatic. It grabs you and it’s hard not to pay attention and become enveloped by the sound. The entire set was impressive, with other standouts being the key track “Mountain At My Gates,” as well as “Providence,” “What Went Down” and the emotional “Give It All.” At the close of their 30 minute set, much of the crowd chanted “WE WANT MORE, WE WANT MORE!” as the techs hurriedly tore down the band’s equipment. There was little chance the band would come back out given the tight time schedule, but I hope the chanting brought smiles to the guys in the band. We would love to see these guys again. I can see how they make festival crowds go nuts.

The third act onstage was the Grammy nominated Silversun Pickups. Honestly, I was still trying to figure out why so many people have so much love for this group. To me, this group writes underwhelming music. I should like it, I mean they have obvious similarities to 90s alt-rock icons like Smashing Pumpkins, but I still wasn’t convinced. I initially didn’t have high hopes for this Spring Fling gig after a lackluster performance I saw as openers for Muse in 2011. That performance wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t necessarily good either. Sure they were in Muse territory, but the group still appeared listless and uninspired, like they were barely trying. Brian Aubert just stood there and the rest of the group didn’t leave an impression. This time around, the LA based group cranked it up a few notches and delivered an entertaining and spirited performance. Brian Aubert was having a great time. He strolled up and down the stage, interacted with the crowd and laid down his guitar parts with soul and sang with a ton of heart. He was all smiles and delivered a quality performance. The other band members also laid it down. Nikki Monninger on bass was a unique sight to see, her glittering dress acting like a shiny human shaped mirror ball. She provided backing vocals, additional keys and percussion while also trading lead with Brian on the spellbinding “Circadian Rhythm.” Joe Lester on keyboards played it cool, laying down his parts with an elegant and gentle flair. Chris Guanlao on drums was like a one man show onstage. His drum kit was unique, with his main crash positioned super high, well above his head and at a flat 180 degree angle. He also used multiple snares on his setup, with the main snare being lower in pitch with loose tension on the snare wires, making for a more rattley sound that blended well with the other band members. It was cool seeing Guanlao so into the performance, his mop of hair wildly thrashing around while pounding out his drum parts. The band had fun, with Aubert teasing Nikki Monninger before they eased into “Circadian Rhythm,” saying ‘Ok everyone, pay attention to Nikki on this one, you’re going to wanna watch her…ok Nikki, don’t fuck up!’ Silversun’s set was lower key in comparison to the first two groups, however they performed their brand of alternative rock with conviction and passion. They were very well received by the crowd, even filling in on the ‘We want it!’ sections of “Night Light.” They won my respect and I couldn’t help but feel like I witnessed something special this time around. They performed for an hour and stand out performances included “Panic Switch,” “Night Light,” “Latchkey Kids,” Wild Kind,” and “Lazy Eye.” I was looking forward to hearing “Bloody Mary” but it didn’t make the set this night. Great set and a great addition to this quadruple bill. I’ll never bad mouth Silversun Pickups again.

The final group on the bill was Cage the Elephant, also Grammy nominees. The band hit the ground running the moment they jumped onstage, opening with a trio of high energy rockers “Cry Baby,” “In One Ear” and “Spiderhead.” Singer Matthew Schultz constantly grooved and slinked across the stage, barely stopping to rest. I have no idea how the man can move like that and still have good breath control, but he pulled it off and made the audience crazy. It was a very cool surprise to see how commanding the group was and how rabid the fan reaction was, proving themselves more than worthy of the headlining slot. CTE is touring as a 6 piece with additional help on keyboards. Nick Bockrath is playing lead guitar and pulled off his parts with ease and looked very much like a confident, capable lead player. The whole group had great stage presence and were having a great time, especially the Shultz brothers, while bassist Daniel Tichenor enjoyed the show from his position with a laid-back coolness. Jared Champion’s drum performance was very unassuming, very reserved, but those aren’t bad things. He laid down his parts, no frills and bull-sh*t free. With music like theirs, Champion has to keep the train rolling and he did so without a single clam. Hailing from Kentucky, CTE’s style was loose, bluesy, funky, with a grittiness that set them apart from the three previous groups. Theirs was a raw sound with a Southern vibe kind of in keeping with early Kings Of Leon, but with a lot more swagger. You could hear classic rock in the vein of Skynyrd and The James Gang in there too, with a bit of punk and glam. They reminded me of a LOT of different groups, even The New York Dolls and Bowie. This hodge podge of sound made CTE uniquely versatile, in a way much different from say, Foal’s sense of versatility. They used a twin guitar formula, perfect for sweaty romps like “Aberdeen,” “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicket” “Shake Me Down,” Sabretooth Tiger” and “Mess Around.” Even deep into their live set, Matthew still had a super human amount of energy. To say his performance was energetic would be a massive understatement. The group played a massive headlining set, around 20 or 21 songs in length. They were relentless. And while they could pound out rockers and punk inspired numbers, they could also effectively dial things back and perform a gentle piece like my favorite song of theirs, “Cigarette Daydreams.” Matt’s vocals are so soulful on that number, with this sweet vulnerability. You think his voice is about to crack while crooning those sentimental lyrics, but he keeps it together, sweet and honest. This was a surprisingly awesome package tour. I knew it would be good but underestimated how great it could actually be. There’s nothing like being there and the music becomes something else in a live setting. We enjoyed the show and were fortunate enough to catch it that Friday evening. Several fans posted on KFRR 104.1’s Facebook page, applauding the station for helping to get a show like this to our little area. So long as people go and support this kind of thing, hopefully the same acts and similar groups will make a stop in Fresno and the Central Valley.

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