The first time I saw Twenty One Pilots was in 2013, at a small venue in Seattle. I was age 17, a senior in high school, and I hadn’t listened to a single song of the band’s before my friend dragged me to the show.
Evidently, she was onto something. I was absolutely blown away. I didn’t know the words to any of the songs yet, but I wish I had — everyone else rapped along to every fast-paced verse like they’d written the songs themselves. When Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph emerged mysteriously in masks, when Josh did a backflip off of Tyler’s piano, when the duo not only crowdsurfed, but crowdsurfed on a platform while playing drums, it was only a matter of hours before I was sucked headfirst into the Clique. The band’s energy and charisma was like nothing I had ever seen before in my brief concert-going life.
Afterwards, I fended off post-concert depression by cramming as much of the genre-defying duo’s music into my ears as I possibly could. At the show, I felt like I’d been a part of something — a wonderful little secret shared just between me and the other couple hundred people at the show — and I didn’t ever want to stop reliving it.
Fast forward to last week, Thursday night at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. It was my third time seeing Twenty One Pilots. A band that had once barely filled an 800-capacity theater now sold out an 8,500-capacity amphitheater. And this was far from the biggest show on its tour — Twenty One Pilots has played for crowds as massive as 30,000.
The band’s success has skyrocketed in the past year. Its 2015 release, Blurryface, put Twenty One Pilots on the mainstream radar for the first time. In the album’s lead single, “Fairly Local,” Tyler raps, “This song will never be on the radio.” Ironically, turning on the radio these days means a pretty decent chance of hearing a Twenty One Pilots song.
No one deserves this breakout success more than they do — Tyler and Joseph are ridiculously talented individuals who truly care about their fans, and their music is like nothing else in the industry today. But in a crowd more than 10 times the size of the one I’d been in the first time I’d seen them, I couldn’t help but feel a little shell-shocked.
Fans refused to slide over even the slightest when I attempted to squeeze into a spot near the back. Adult chaperones for Twenty One Pilots-obsessed teens turned their backs to prevent me from seeing the stage. Thirteen year olds shrieked at the top of their lungs, “Josh Dun is so beautiful! I love him!”
The dedication of this crowd was admirable. Red eye shadow, ski masks, skeleton suits, the band’s logo doodled all over their bodies — these fans weren’t there to mess around. They had waited in line since early that morning. They were sweaty, they were exhausted, they were loud and they were living.
But the atmosphere was more tense and “Stressed Out” than it was fun and accepting, no longer a movement that anyone could join. Some people had paid almost $100 for these tickets. They had camped out. As soon as the show began, crying 13-year olds started getting pulled over the barrier at regular intervals by unimpressed security guards. The maddening sweat and fervor had taken a physical toll on them.
Still, Twenty One Pilots delivered a show certainly worthy of all the hype it’s been getting. Tyler and Josh are seasoned professionals these days, moving easily between backflips, crowdsurfing, Tyler climbing to the top of the venue, ukulele ballads, furiously-rapped verses and mind-melting electronic dance music drops. Their energy never faltered.
But in the midst of all the crazy stage antics, I couldn’t help but feel that Twenty One Pilots were a little more disconnected from their fans. For most of the set, Tyler barely spoke but a few words to the crowd. Frenzied fans shrieked for moments like when Tyler climbed into the crowd inside a giant hamster ball, but I wished for a little less focus on the flashy tricks and a little more solid connection — like when Tyler gave a heartfelt speech to the crowd back in 2013, explaining why the “stay alive” message of Vessel was so important to him.
These guys are absolute legends on stage, don’t get me wrong. But the intimate moments that make them so special were a little harder to come by at such a huge show. Fortunately, a moment finally came that reminded me of why I’d fallen in love with Twenty One Pilots in the first place: a medley they played of their old songs, back before they’d signed to a record label or attracted legions of red and black-clad fans to their shows. With audience members waving their virtual lighters in the air, Tyler played the piano from a pop-up stage in the back of the venue, crooning the lyrics to “Addict with a Pen” and “Kitchen Sink.” There was the magic I had missed.
So, to all of you new Twenty One Pilots fans: Welcome. You’re just going to take some getting used to.