What happens when one of the cutest, sweetest groups in the world gets booked in the ugliest, dankest concert venue in the Twin Cities?
Cute and sweet won out Saturday night at Owl City's almost-homecoming concert at Roy Wilkins Auditorium, but not without some blemishes.
Spotlessly clean Owl City creator/frontman Adam Young -- the Minnesota kid who famously landed the No. 1 hit "Fireflies" working out of his parents' basement in Owatonna -- exuded aw-shucks charm throughout his biggest local headlining gig to date, an early tour stop behind sophomore album "All Things Bright & Beautiful." He barely half-filled the St. Paul mini-arena with about 2,800 fans, but it sounded as if five would have still made him happy.
"Thanks for being here, when I know you could have gone to 'Cowboys & Aliens' instead," Young said early in his 100-minute set, referring to this weekend's big megaplex movie. At show's end, he called his mostly under-20 crowd "such a huge blessing."
If you think Young's nice-guy-wins success story and fluff-headed look are adorable on paper, you should have seen him on stage Saturday with his similarly youthful, wholesome-looking, co-ed five-piece band. The whole lot of them looked like they stepped out of the "after" segment in a Clearasil commercial. Even the Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block each had one dog of a dude, but not Owl City.
However, Young's teammates are no mere babes as far as musicianship. With only moderate help from pre-recorded music -- the life-sized video-screen appearance of rapper Shawn Chrystopher in "Alligator Sky" was ultra-hokey -- they pulled off remarkably precise renditions of Young's carefully crafted synth-pop recordings.
Many of today's way-hip indie-rock bands born from one guy's home recordings don't translate nearly this well on stage. String players Laura Musten and Hannah Schroeder especially helped buoy ultra-fantastical tunes such as "Cave In" and "Meteor Shower," while Apple Valley singer/keyboardist Breanne Düren made things all the sweeter in "Honey and the Bee."
The Owl Citizens even made an impressive show of changing instruments from song-to-song: everything from the violinist playing bass and the guitarist hitting vibraphones to Young himself sitting behind a second drum kit, which he did to kick off the opening number "The Real World."
Unfortunately, the music itself did not display the same kind of versatility. After playing a majority of the tracks off his two major-label albums, it became clear that too many of Young's songs follow the same airy, heartbeat-rhythmic sonic formula and song structures. "I'll Meet You There" and "Kamikaze" were among the low points. Young was wise to add the B-side piano ballad "Lonely Lullaby" as a musical change-up. He and the band also rearranged "Fireflies" with a heavy, Bon Jovi-like fist-pumper intro.
Whatever the song arrangements, Wilkins Auditorium was clearly a bad arrangement logistically for Owl City. With the side balconies mostly empty and the band's high-end sound already high on echo, the venue's notorious acoustic pitfalls were amplified. And the main reason for choosing to play there -- so fans could dance around on the seat-less general-admission floor -- was lost on the crowd of teens and pre-teens, who stood around awkwardly despite the electronic beats. In more ways than one, then, the auditorium felt like a gym during a junior high school dance. But yeah: That, too, was sort of cute.
See Owl City's set list at startribune.com/artcetera Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658