They’re pretty decent musicians, sure, but Twenty One Pilots proved in their sold-out concert Sunday night at Xcel Energy Center that their best talent might be multi-tasking.
The rap- and reggae-tinged Ohio-reared rock duo — on their second arena headlining tour after racking up a couple of hits and picking up one of rock’s more fanatical young audiences in 2016 — cut a wide swath musically Sunday but were even harder to keep track of physically during the two-hour performance.
At one point, drummer Josh Dun sneaked away from his drum riser to do an impressive back flip off frontman Tyler Joseph’s piano without stopping the song. At another point, Dun managed to play drums and crowd surf at the same time, thanks to a specially rigged kit he rode atop the hands of fans.
Meanwhile, Joseph — who writes a lot of mopey and/or angsty songs but is all smiles and hijinks in concert — sneaked away from the main stage twice during the concert so he could surprise fans elsewhere on mini-platforms hidden around the arena. He also made several quick outfit changes without halting the show.
Going from wearing a black ski mask for the dark and downcast rocker “Fairly Local” to a Hawaiian shirt and cheap sunglasses in the ukulele-plucked novelty pop tune “We Don’t Believe What’s on TV” pretty well summed up the singer’s wardrobe-matching approach.
And all the while, the two bromantic bandmates were also able to keep track of — and stay out of the way of — the many moving parts and fiery corners of their elaborate stage production. They avoided getting singed by the brightly burning car that lit up the stage for opening song “Jumpsuit.” They took cover when a couple of stage hands came around in white hazmat suits and sprayed smoke guns at fans (surely the first time fumigation has been incorporated into a rock show, right?).
That Joseph and Dun were able to pull it all off while also playing their music hints at the most dismaying thing about Sunday’s concert: They weren’t actually playing a lot of the music pumping through the St. Paul arena.
Too much of Twenty One Pilot’s live show still comes from pre-recorded backing tracks. Nearly every song in the set list had augmented musical parts that came with the press of a button. Even Ed Sheeran was able to play all his music himself a night earlier in town, and he’s one less guy than Dun and Joseph.
The fellas (ages 29-30) do not lack musical chops, either. Dun kept a steady beat despite his unsteady antics, and Joseph dutifully switched from bass to ukulele to piano without missing a beat. When on piano, as in both “Heathens” and “The Judge,” the singer prompted an impressive amount of piano-man-style audience singing while seated at the keys, too.
Joseph’s lyrics — often tinged with hope and a little humor amid darker, psychological themes — seemed to connect well with the largely teenage audience Sunday, including several songs off the duo’s just two-week-old album, “Trench.” The moody new epic “Neon Gravestones,” performed under an eerily lit mesh net on a smaller B-stage, served as something of a show centerpiece, while “Bandito” found Joseph stretching out vocally with dramatic flair.
As for the older Twenty One Pilots hits, “Stressed Out” was dropped early in the set with a clever use of the red knit hat that appears in the song’s viral music video; it floated around the stage before Joseph emerged with it on his head. “Ride” effectively lightened things up after the dark B-stage montage. And “Car Radio” made the room into one big, slow-rocking choir before the encore.
In terms of audience reaction, these dudes truly made a special connection Sunday. The 15,000 fans seemed enamored with all the razzle-dazzle stage gimmickry as much as the band members’ charming personas, but the young audience was also discernibly passionate about the music (never mind if it was live or Memorex).
And the kids weren’t just fanatical about Twenty One Pilots’ music. They also gave warm-up band Awolnation a deservedly excited response. They sang along loudest of all when Joseph and Dun brought the openers back out for a cover of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” — the simplest and yet best stage stunt of them all for a band whose songs are largely about making bad things better.