Review / photos: 97X Next Big Thing brings Twenty One Pilots, new alternative sounds to Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre
In 15 years, there’s never been a 97X Next Big Thing like this year’s: So much emphasis on pop and dance, so little emphasis on traditional guitar rock.
Coincidentally or not, there’s also never been a Next Big Thing this popular.
Upwards of 20,000 fans filled Tampa’s MidFlorida Credit Credit Union on Saturday, only the second sellout in Next Big Thing history and by far its biggest crowd ever. If pianos and big beats and synthesizers and saxophones are what pass for alternative these days, they’re passing with flying colors. And 97X is all too happy to pass with them.
It’s a literal reversal from just three years ago, when last-gen rockers Rise Against and Bush headlined Next Big Thing, and a young, unknown Ohio duo named Twenty One Pilots opened the show. On Saturday, Twenty One Pilots were the headliners, capping a meteoric rise that’s seen them become one of the most popular under-30 bands in America.
They’re a hard act to categorize, blending elements of piano pop, hip-hop and white-boy reggae into a style that feels almost like theater. But fans have latched onto Tyler Joseph’s intense and open odes to neurosis and anxiety, Josh Dun’s animalistic drumming, and performances that feature superhero feats of high-flying parkour.
Coming out in masks, the duo opened with Heavydirtysoul and Stressed Out, two hits from their genre-hopping, chart-topping album Blurryface. And things got crazier from there – Dun blasting a trumpet on We Don’t Believe What’s On TV; Joseph strumming a toy guitar for a peaceful take on Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling In Love; Dun backflipping from Joseph’s piano on Holding On To You; Joseph prompting all 20,000 fans to wave their free foam glowsticks like sugar-addled fireflies on the anthemically upbeat Car Radio.
Was it strange to see Twenty One Pilots, a band with little evident interest in rock 'n' roll, headlining Next Big Thing? Ask the crowd, half of whom appeared covered in Twenty One Pilots merchandise and iconography, and they’d say no way.
But Twenty One Pilots were no outliers on Saturday. Even the more “traditional” bands on the bill actually had more in common with Joseph and Dun than Rise Against or Bush.
Take Walk the Moon, eternally energetic singers of the euphoric dance-pop hit Shut Up and Dance. Dance they did, right along with everyone else in the house, when singer Nicholas Petricca drew the ovation of the year by introducing that monster single.
“I want them to hear you in Texas!” he shouted, grinning broadly. “I want them to hear you across the ocean! I want them to hear you on the moon!”
Icelandic folk troupe Of Monsters and Men likewise charmed the pants off the Amp, with twee, horn-powered clap-alongs like Mountain Sound, Wolves Without Teeth and Little Talks, which crescendoed to the most triumphant trumpet solo in Next Big Thing history.
Each band put its own spin on traditional RAWK. The Neighbourhood swooned and swept through cinematic, slow-burning rockers like Prey and Afraid. X Ambassadors looped a live sax sample on Love Songs Drug Songs and dipped into falsetto R&B on Gorgeous. Even the day’s token “veteran” act, the all-of-33-year-old Andrew McMahon of Jack’s Mannequin and Something Corporate, never touched a guitar, instead spinning and grinning behind a grand piano on up-with-everything emo-pop tracks like High Dive and I Woke Up In A Car.
In accordance with its name, this year’s Next Big Thing did test out a few new tricks, including an intimate acoustic stage featuring pop-up performances by Walk the Moon and others. And the station brought in a few up-and-coming acts making their maiden trips to Tampa Bay, and in some cases Florida as a whole.
Psych-pop rising star Borns drenched what he called an “easy, breezy, beautiful” second-stage crowd in dreamy psychedelia with 10,000 Emerald Pools and Electric Love. Canadian dance-pop dude Coleman Hell had to doff his heavy leather jacket to cut a mighty rug on Heat of the Night and 2 Heads. Sax-toting good-time outfit Saint Motel sampled and name-checked Benny Goodman on a snappy single that shares his name. And British rockers Glass Animals delivered a slinky set that veered from watery jazz and trip-hop to skittery, almost Radiohead-like grooves.
Psych-pop? Saxophones? Trip-hop? Jazz? Benny freaking Goodman? None of this sounds anything like your older brother's 97X.
But if this really is the future of mainstream alternative music, Saturday's huge turnout suggests it's a bright one, and plenty eclectic, too. As Walk the Moon would tell you: Stop looking back and just shut up and dance, already. The listeners of 97X are way ahead of you.
-- Jay Cridlin