Review: Awolnation, Imagine Dragons showcase offbeat pop mastery at the Ritz Ybor in Tampa
Aaron Bruno is a most unlikely pop star, a bedroom Beethoven whose penchant for big beats is matched only by his skill for big hooks. Sail, the biggest single from his pseudonymous alt-rock outfit Awolnation, is a mighty, meaty blast of blues driven by a half-time, womp-wompy beat. It shouldn’t get played on the radio, but it did. A lot.
So you could argue that Bruno, Awolnation’s singer, songwriter and mastermind, shouldn’t be a star. But he is.
And you could argue that Awolnation’s show at the Ritz Ybor Wednesday night shouldn’t have sold out. But it did.
Of course, it’s possible that opening act Imagine Dragons also had something to do with that.
The Las Vegas group has rocketed to radio airplay this summer and fall with It’s Time and Radioactive, two songs that have been played in commercials, movie trailers and TV shows. The band has toured tirelessly leading up to and after the September release of debut LP Night Visions, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts.
The group’s heavily percussive sound is evident from the stage setup, which includes a 36-by-18 drum at center stage for singer Dan Reynolds to pound at will. Reynolds waved his mic stand like a scepter, bouncing and bounding around the stage as the crowd screamed the lyrics to non-singles like Tiptoe, Demons and the calypso-ish On Top of the World.
After a hyperactive, bombastic rendition of Radioactive, Reynolds was clearly winded, but the fans at the Ritz let him catch his breath with an extended ovation. Reynolds stood at the lip of the stage and patted his palm on his chest: Thank you. Thank you. He and guitarist Wayne Sermon hung out by the band’s tour bus most of the rest of the night, signing autographs and taking pictures with fans.
As for Awolnation: Bruno loves his knobs-to-11 bass. Early on, the crowd danced and bounced along to the rowdy anthem Not Your Fault and the New Wave A-bomb Wake Up. He performed most of the night bathed in dim blue light, occasionally swirling his mic out over the crowd, yipping and yooping and especially howling all night.
The band’s synths and guitars were warped and distorted like a mother, to the point where the funky riffs of MF sounded like the Dazz Band or Gap Band pulsing through a third-rate subwoofer. But then Bruno followed it up by strapping on a guitar for new song Cannibals, a dreamy, beachy ballad in the vein of Weezer or Surfer Blood. This is as minimalist as Awolnation tends to get, and it may reveal an evolution from the sonic smorgasbord Bruno laid out on debut album Megalithic Symphony.
Can going smaller help Awolnation get even bigger? As Sail proved, anything is possible in today’s pop landscape. Bet against Bruno at your own risk.
Finally, a word must be said about Austin, Texas rapper Zeale, who kicked off the night with a hugely energetic set. His game includes taking suggestions from audience members at every stop, and constructing a lengthy, flawless freestyle around them. Tampa’s suggestions were egg rolls, aliens and boobs. He knocked it out of the park. Imagine everything hip-hop fans want Childish Gambino to be, and crank the energy even higher — this is what Zeale brings to table. Hats off to him.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photos: Luis Santana, tbt*