The Columbus natives' connection to their core audience is something to behold.
“We are Twenty One Pilots and so are you.”
Everyone loves a hometown hero. When we see someone gain success beyond city boundaries, we instinctively feel a sense of pride.
Though Twenty One Pilots has churned out multiple top ten hits and brought home a Grammy Award, it’s not the accolades that have sustained Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun in the eyes of Columbus fans, who are predominantly high school- and college-aged. It’s the ability to be a mirror for listeners, reflecting their struggles, hopes and tastes to them through music.
That reality was made clear on Saturday, June 29 — the first of Twenty One Pilots’ two-night appearance at Nationwide Arena on Nationwide Boulevard, which the city temporarily renamed “Twenty One Pilots Boulevard.” The band played to a crowd of lookalikes in beanies, camo clothing and yellow tape. And many of them had camped out a week prior for premium spots in the floor area.
So, telling them that they, too, were Twenty One Pilots at the end of the show was not an overstatement.
When the musicians set the stage with a burning car, hardcore fans knew they’d entered Trench, a bleak, metaphorical world — and the title of the band’s latest concept album — based on issues related to mental health, religion and insecurity. The entire project, along with several songs from the group’s massively successful Blurryface were performed, making for a packed setlist could have been pared down a bit for a more effective pace.
Fire was just one of a series of elements that made for a dynamic production. There were rising platforms, backflips, startling explosions, smoke effects and a truly engrossing light show that formed shapes above Joseph’s head as he sat at the piano for a slower segment. (“Sons, please find a moment in your concert when we could sit down,” the musicians’ fathers reportedly requested.)
Both men were suspended above the crowd at various times during the show: walking across a bridge that connected two stages, or being physically supported by fans. At one point, Dun and his drum kit appeared to levitate above a sea of outstretched arms.
Twenty One Pilots' sound can be best described as rap-rock and reggae-lite with a side of simple piano ballad. The band has wrestled with criticism over its genre-expanding approach on songs like “Lane Boy,” which was performed halfway through the show. “I wasn’t raised in the hood/But I know a thing or two about pain and darkness,” Joseph raps in defense of his suburban upbringing.
Whether or not one is impressed — “Linkin Park did it first,” my friend remarked at the show — Twenty One Pilots’ hit songs are well-produced and catchy; specifically, the choruses of “Stressed Out” and “Heathens” are impossible to forget. Also, the target audience of suburban kids is accustomed to listening to multiple genres, and identifies with the band’s commentary on depression and anxiety.
“Neon Gravestones” is especially frank, timely and a bit controversial. “Our culture can treat a loss like it’s a win,” Joseph sings, questioning whether suicide is being glorified in society.
Encouraging fans to persevere was a constant message throughout the night, and there were moments of pure connection and joy in the arena. During “Ride,” Joseph commanded each person on the floor to grab a partner and lift them on their shoulders (no one was hurt).
The most transcendent moment occurred during “My Blood.”
“Stay with me, my blood, you don’t need to run,” the crowd sang in unison, conjuring a powerful feeling of support and hope.
In Twenty One Pilots’ eyes, bloodlines can be metaphors for the bonds between people outside of relatives — friends, lovers and fans.
“We’re proud of you guys for building what you built for us,” Joseph told the crowd.
And although most of the audience may have been too young to know the Sister Sledge song that blared from the speakers after the show, it was a fitting conclusion.
“We are family.”