Review and photos: Owl City, Lights touch down in Ybor City
Let's call a spade a spade: Owl City is a one-hit wonder.
I say this not to denigrate Head Owl Adam Young, the breakout indie pop artist of 2009. Tens of thousands of musicians would kill to have a hit as catchy and ubiquitous as Fireflies, which is still lingering in Billboard's top 20 after months on the charts. And I happen to like a lot of Owl City's other music, too.
But let's be honest -- the primary reason Wednesday's Owl City show at the Ritz Ybor in Tampa sold out weeks in advance was Fireflies. And it was before that bug-hungry crowd that Adam Young, reclusive Minnesota knob-twiddler and unlikely iTunes sensation, made his case that he can be a bona fide, real-life pop star.
To a large degree, he succeeded. Whatever you think of Owl City's recorded output -- too bubbly, too synthy, too polished, too much like the Postal Service -- when you see them perform live, you have to be impressed by Young's willingness to convert his electronic doodles into living, breathing, organic pop songs. At times his unhinged enthusiasm behind the mic even managed to pump the crowd into a dance frenzy, no small feat on a school night.
(Click here for a gallery of photos from Wednesday night's concert.)
But before we delve any deeper into Owl City's concert in Tampa, we must first say a word about Lights.
Soundcheck's celebrity crush on Canadian pop songbird Lights (a.k.a. Valerie Poxleitner) is well established (see here, here, here and here). Sure, she's easy on the eyes. Sure, she's got hella spunk that allows her to rock full-back tattoos and write comic books in her downtime.
But it is her infectious live presence that has made her a borderline cult hero, enabling her to land spots on both the Warped Tour and the upcoming Lilith Fair revival, not to mention a coveted opening slot on Owl City's sold-out trek. Always beaming, always bouncing behind her Korgs and keytars, she seems unafraid to let her geeky pop leanings overtake her onstage, and the audience can't help but rock out with her.
Following a lush, well-received set by Arkansas indie rockers Deas Vail, Lights dished out '80s-tinged thumpers like Saviour*, Ice and Lions!, all of which were big hits with the ready-to-dance crowd. Her closer, the glittery, operatic The Last Thing On Your Mind -- you know it from an Old Navy commercial -- was pure lush beauty. Women were chanting her name at the end of the show. Guys were calling her their new girlfriend.
Put it this way: I stood next to two women who told me that, upon learning Wednesday's concert was sold out, they shelled out $100 for a pair on Craigslist. And they were there to see Lights. Trust us, the next time she comes to town, you'll want to see her, too.
Owl City came on around 9 p.m., and Young strolled onstage last, eating a sandwich (no, I'm not kidding), which he later threw into the crowd (again, not kidding)**.
Backed by a whiz-bang five-piece band -- including two keyboardists, a drummer, a violinist and a cellist -- Young himself switched from synthesizer to guitar and back, though he spent most of his time flailing around with a mic, twisting his torso like a windmill. Sure, his dancing was a little awkward at times, but so is, say, Michael Stipe's***.
Opening with Umbrella Beach, the set never once slowed down, thanks in part to Young's nonstop spazzing and the propulsive, crescendoing nature of every Owl City song. (As a bonus, the stage looked gorgeous, thanks to an ethereal light show that beautifully captured the effervescence of the music.)
Owl City's best tracks -- like the skittery Genesis-like Cave In or bouncy twee love song The Bird and the Worm -- took on new life when performed with a full band. No longer constrained by the digital confines of Young's bedroom, they became rousing party starters in concert, prompting Owl City's violinist and cellist to jump up and start dancing. That's what happened on the night's best song, The Tip of the Iceberg, off Owl City's Ocean Eyes. When Iceberg hit its peak, with Young whipping his mic overhead and the string section pumping their fists, it felt like a discotheque inside the Ritz.
Owl City's set was a short one, maybe an hour, and the concert ended at about 10 p.m. (no doubt to accommodate the schoolkids in the crowd). But Young played like a pop singer who wants to stay in it for the long haul.
How do we know this?
One word: Fireflies.
Instead of closing with their only massive smash, Owl City elected to play it midway through their set, risking a mass exodus of fans who just wanted to hear this one-hit wonder's one hit.
When Young introduced the song with a simple, "It's about bugs," the crowd cheered, and everyone lifted their cameras and cell phones to the air. (I counted about 35 cameras just in the 20 or so yards of space between Young and myself; this clip was on YouTube 90 minutes after the show).
Honestly, I'm still not tired of Fireflies, and it didn't seem like the other fans there were, either. The song's chorus is irresistible. Everyone sang. And when the song ended, sure, a few folks here and there trickled out to beat the traffic. But not where I was standing.
Where I was standing, a number of people kept their cameras in the air, recording the lesser known but equally lovely pop jewels that followed Fireflies. For the rest of the set, cameras kept popping up, their blue glows floating in the crowd like 10,000 lightning bugs, teaching one-hit wonder Adam Young how to dance.
* Loving that superfluous Canadian "u" in Saviour, Lights!
** In addition to his sandwich, at various points during the set, Young also threw picks, plastic water bottles and even a toothbrush into the crowd. I know we all like getting souvenirs at rock concerts, but a toothbrush? Seriously, Adam: Ew.
*** I think we as a society might be predisposed to describing Adam Young as "awkward" simply because he looks exactly like the creepy brother from Wedding Crashers.