Blurry and Human: Twenty One Pilots at the Fox

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“My name’s Blurryface and I care what you think–!”

So sings frontman Tyler Joseph in Twenty One Pilots’ third studio album, Blurryface.  The lyric comes from “Stressed Out,” the second song on the album and the second song they performed in Oakland last Sunday.  Joined by drummer Josh Dun, Tyler Joseph sang, rapped, and played piano, guitar, and ukulele for a sold out crowd at the Fox Theater for two nights in a row during their album-promoting tour.

The Fox was a near-perfect venue for the duo.  The ornate decor seemed more fitting for an opera than a punk rock concert, but Twenty One Pilots made the most of the space. The incredible sound system was loud, but not overpowering, and the stage offered plenty of space for Tyler and Josh to move around.  But they took their time — two other groups opened before TOP took over.  Oakland native indie pop quintet Finish Ticket rocked the stage with grungy guitar solos and fantastic hair.  The rockers of Echosmith filled the Fox with a lighter mood as the four siblings pulled out glow-in-the-dark drumsticks and encouraged the crowd to sing along to their popular “Cool Kids.”  The openers left the audience hyped and ready to go, and soon, Twenty One Pilots assumed full command of the theater.

They introduced the show with “Heavydirtysoul,” the first song off of Blurryface. As Tyler and Josh opened, they wore masks to hide their faces from the crowd, an immediate nod to the album title.  The effect was eerie and added to Tyler’s power over the crowd.  Josh drummed the intro to “Heavydirtysoul” in a menacing gold mask, but Tyler stood still on the stage, his skull-masked head cocked to one side.  He stood and held his microphone out towards the crowd as he let us rap to the first verse and chorus of the song, entrancing us and drawing us in before joining in himself.  As I stood in the middle of the pit, I took a moment to take in the stage, cast in red light, and the screaming fans around me, many of which wore red eye shadow in imitation of Josh Dun’s signature look.

I knew the band possessed a strong pull on its loyal, growing fan base — the Skeleton Clique, as they’re called.  Still, the reality and scope of the band’s influence didn’t hit me until they opened to a crowd that knew every lyric to every song.  I suppose it shouldn’t have been surprising, as Twenty One Pilots has already been incredibly influential in my own life even though I only started listening to them in May.  Tyler writes poetic lyrics on fighting mental battles, overcoming darkness, and deconstructing appearances.  Each song is relatable, human, and real. Listening to each track is an act of catharsis, one that increased tenfold during Twenty One Pilots’ live performance.

Tyler and Josh continued through songs from Blurryface and their second album, Vessel, hiding their faces throughout the set. They exchanged masks for hoods during the struggle-bus anthem of “Stressed Out,” and, in Tyler’s case, a hood for a beanie even later.  After a few more songs, they finally exposed their faces to the crowd as Tyler grabbed a ukulele to play acoustic songs like the sentimental, marginally more cheerful “We Don’t Believe What’s On TV.” The atmosphere mellowed and the lighting in the theater brightened, providing a nice break from the intense opening songs.  Still, we over-enthusiastically answered Tyler’s beckon to shout “Yeah yeah yeah!”s on his cue.

After just a few acoustic songs, the tone of the concert returned to its angsty, punk-rock glory with “Lane Boy.”  Most people describe themselves either as being drawn more to lyrics or melody when listening to music, but in songs like “Lane Boy,” the two come together seamlessly.  Josh drummed out a rapid, hectic beat as Tyler lamented the loss of meaning and creativity that all too often characterizes pop culture. When the beat dropped two-thirds of the way through the song, two other men jumped on stage, wearing gas masks and hazmat suits.  One bore the word “SUCCESS” in black across his chest, and the other bore “FAME.”  The crowd lost its mind — I lost my mind.  Lights raced across the four giant screens in the back of the stage, as the gas mask/hazmat men briefly danced and then rushed off the stage as suddenly as they appeared.  Tyler seemed to triumphant once they disappeared, suggestive of a creative and artistic victory over “SUCCESS” and “FAME.”  Or perhaps, as the lyrics to “Lane Boy” hint, suggestive of a redefinition of the terms: the rejection of money and media coverage, and the embrace of personally-defined significance as a measurement of happiness.

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Then, as a gesture to their roots, Twenty One Pilots assumed center stage with their original instruments: Tyler played his keyboard while Josh beat a rhythm on an electronic drum set.  They played a medley that flowed in and out of songs from their first and second albums (twenty | one | pilots and Vessel, respectively).  As they played through songs meaningful and familiar to long-loyal fans, a sense of nostalgia swept over the crowd — expressed, of course, through unanimously swaying iPhone flashlights.

Medley over, the concert continued, and Tyler and Josh swept through more songs from Blurryface and Vessel.  They also increased their interactions with the crowd; at two different points of the night, they took turns standing on top of a makeshift stage that was extended into the pit and supported by the crowd’s hungry hands.  When it was Josh’s turn, the stage crew loaded a small drum kit onto the wooden platform before he stepped on to play an impressive drum solo.  At this point, I’d long ago surrendered control over my movements — I became a part of the organism that is The Pit, but I was perfectly okay with that.  The energy in the theater was far too intoxicating to resist.

As they played their wry hit from Blurryface, “Tear in My Heart,” the crowd went wild. The masks were gone, the concert became a direct experience between the fans and the band for those four to five minutes.  They then moved into their closing song, “Car Radio,” TOP’s most popular song from Vessel. Both Tyler and Josh hid behind ski masks once again, as Tyler sang “I have these thoughts/So often I ought/To replace that slot/With what I once bought/Because somebody stole my car radio/And now I just sit in silence.” The theater — even the pit — became somber as line after line hit us with such resonance and power.

Lyrics like these connect the audience to the band because we all experience solitude, silence, and thoughts we would rather forget about. We hide under façades, we hide insecurities, we deny some identities and we adopt others. Sometimes, as Tyler and Josh did through the course of the concert, we remove masks, but they all too easily slip on again.  Like everyone else in the Fox Theater that night, I identified all too well with the verses Tyler Joseph sings.  I wear my own “blurryface.”

Of course, after “Car Radio” finished, I joined the crowd in screaming for an encore — which Twenty One Pilots granted by playing both a new song and an old song.  In “Goner,” the slowest track off of Blurryface, Tyler brought us back full circle to the start of the show, singing mournfully, “I’ve got two faces/Blurry’s the one I’m not.” Then, Tyler and Josh concluded with “Trees,” an upbeat song, and as Tyler introduced it, the duo’s favorite song to play live.  Twenty One Pilots fully embraced the crowd once more, masks gone, standing on platforms supported by the pit.  Red and white confetti rained down onto the crowd as Tyler and Josh dismounted the platforms, took a bow, and jubilantly bid the crowd a good night.

I left the Fox Theater feeling uplifted, and so purely alive.  Despite the goth name, singing with the “Skeleton Clique” about internal conflicts grounded me in my humanity more than yearning after unreachable perfection ever could.  Sharing Tyler’s lyrics on faith, doubt, pride, and insecurity created an odd sense of consolation and community.  I have two faces, but both can still treasure rare moments of vulnerability.

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