Music careers are measured in so many ways: platinum albums, concert tickets sold, charts topped and awards won. But for Twenty One Pilots the most important measure is dreams realized. And on Tuesday (May 31) night at the kick-off of their first-ever all-arena North American tour singer Tyler Joseph took a moment to thank the sold out crowd at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati for helping to make his and drummer Josh Dun’s rock n’ roll fantasies a reality.
“Josh and I have been talking about tonight for six years together,” he said, referring to the long road and endless string of gigs that lead to the Emotional Roadshow arena spectacle. By the time the dynamic duo took a final bow two hours later, staying a beat longer than you might imagine, the swell of all the feels and pride was visible on both their faces.
The night started out as so many do with TOP, with both men taking the stage in ski masks and tearing into the first track from their No. 1 Billboard 200 album, Blurryface, “Heavydirtysoul,” Joseph stalking the stage in a red suit jacket, black pants and black tie. The massive LED screen showing hi-def animations behind them was the first hint that this would be a bigger spectacle than their fans have seen before.
Joseph pulled off a magic show-esque disappearance just a few songs in, popping up in the middle of the arena’s 200 section, then quickly ran back to the stage and changed into white shades and one of his signature long shirts with a floral print. Singing his heart out on the fan favorite “Migraine” from their 2013 breakthrough Vessel, it quickly became clear that this would be one of those shows where the audience felt compelled to shout along to every single lyric. That’s the kind of devotion TOP have built up through years of networking with fans on social media, non-stop touring and cathartic lyrics that speak to both the singer, and his young fans’ feelings of alienation, doubt, fear and isolation.
The collective voice grew to a din on the ukulele rocker “We Don’t Believe What’s On TV” with the joyous “Yeah Yeah Yeah!” call-and-response, which segued into the kitchen sink “The Judge,” a typically all-over-the-place tune that went from pop to hip-hop, a slice of dancehall reggae all while folding in some emo screaming and piano balladry.
In a subliminal nod to how far they’ve come, the bouncy reggae rocker “Lane Boy” — whose video was, in part, filmed at Cincinnati’s own Bunbury Music Festival last summer — was accompanied by the word “success” flashing on the screen behind the pair, who quickly bolted the main stage after the song to change into skeleton jumpsuits and run to a satellite stage in the middle of the packed general admission floor.
In another nod to their increased stature, the floor of the secondary stage was a Saturday Night Fever-worthy riot of shifting disco lights and trippy patterns. The swirling, pulsing light show accompanied a medley of rarely performed older tracks, including “Johnny Boy” and “Addict with a Pen,” as well as quick snippets of “Fall Away,” “The Pantaloon,” “Forest” and “Kitchen Sink.” At one point in the mini-set that whipsawed from hip-hop to doomy EDM, Elton John-style piano crooning and electro beats, Joseph sat cross-legged on the floor staring down at his feet as he sang lines from “March to the Sea” about a voice inside his head urging him to “follow me instead.”
Soon enough the pair were back on the main stage playing on a tiny drum kit and keyboard platform at the edge of audience, for “Doubt” and “Holding On To You,” before Joseph changed once again into his signature long white t-shirt and red wool cap and invited out openers MUTEMATH and Chef’Special for a raucous series of covers. The now-nine piece band hit “Twist and Shout” (which most of the teens and tweens in the audience likely knew only from watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), then a quick bit of Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” and a hyped snippet of House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” which, literally, had the floor of the seats in the arena’s bowl bouncing up and down.
The 27-song extravaganza glided to an end with the dubby “Ride” and the de facto teen blues national anthem “Stressed Out” — during which the arena lit up with the glow of thousands of lighters, ahem, smart phones and the lullaby-like sound of the audience crooning the song’s chorus. Pulling out another arena-worthy toy, Joseph crawled into a red blow-up hamster ball for “Guns for Hands.”
By the time the final, cathartic encore “Trees” built from a gentle piano meditation to a ground-quaking riot that ended with a shower of confetti and the pair bashing drums while riding atop the crowd, both men seemed spent. Joseph bent over double, his hands on his knees as Kun stared out at the screaming throng with a smile on his face that said it all.