If the apocalypse is indeed upon us — and judging from some of the props on stage Saturday at Amalie Arena, we might not be far off — Twenty One Pilots could be the last band standing. Their fans will more or less demand it.
Before a rabid and extremely sold-out crowd of more than 15,000, the Ohio alt-pop duo played through smoke, lasers, masks and one big, flaming car on their mission to assert their place as the biggest alternative act in America.
Doubt it? Just try telling their obsessive ride-or-dies, known as the Clique, many of whom wore homemade merch in the tour's trademark black and yellow. They started showing up at Amalie as early as Tuesday, officially lining up for primo floor access Friday morning, even sticking it out through yesterday's Tampa tornado threat (during which they were allowed to shelter inside the arena).
Singer Tyler Joseph and drummer Joshua Dun know this, which is why they can still get away with starting a show like it's the end of the world. After a sickly yellow curtain dropped to reveal a masked Dun wielding a torch, Joseph arose from the stage atop a flaming car, a symbol of the societal discomfort inborn in their music.
Dark stuff, but they're having some fun with it. After ripping through the napalm-like Jumpsuit and spitfire Levitate, Joseph switched places with a balaclava-clad doppelganger on stage, popping up in the 200 level to rip off his mask amid a crowd of selfie-snapping stans.
When he returned to the stage, there waiting for him was his other trademark bit of headwear, a red knit cap.
"There's my little guy," he said, launching into the arena-shaking hit Stressed Out.
And from there, for a while, all seemed sunny in the Clique. Joseph plinked and plucked as Dun leaped from his seat to crash down on the ones on Heathens. Joseph then got even more breezy-casual, donning a flowered caftan and strumming a ukulele for We Don't Believe What's On TV and The Judge, songs that felt more or less like conventional, traditional pop. Even a couple of gas mask-wearing randos spraying the stage with CO2 couldn't kill the peachy-keen vibes.
Midway through the set, a catwalk dropped from the rafters so Joseph could showboat over fans' heads to a B-stage (Dun just plowed across the floor). There, they stripped away some of their stagecraft and turned back time to the good old days, just Dun at the drums and Joseph on piano, for the earneset piano ballad Taxi Cab and a couple of diaristic newbies, Bandito and Neon Gravestone.
When they returned to the main stage, even more sincerity: The drama-club backpack-rapper Holding on to You, followed by straightfoward covers of the Goo Goo Dolls' Iris (!) and the Beatles' Hey Jude (!!), both accompanied by openers Awolnation and Max Frost.
Now, Iris is a bop, and the Beatles are the Beatles, but one can see how you'd be confused by what Twenty One Pilots were getting at with these covers. In which case, no offense, but you probably didn't belong at the show in the first place. Twenty One Pilots just thrive in unpredictability, in inexplicability, in chaotic words and images that no one but the Clique fully gets.
These are the fans who can groove along to a reggae-lite song like Ride or Lane Boy, then lose their mind for the digital throttle of Pet Cheetah, bouncing to the beat like a soundwave on the floor. When Joseph hopped down to crowdsurf on the drama-club backpack-rapper Holding on to You, they swarmed his way like a colony of black and yellow honeybees. When he divided the house in twain to sing the disco-poppy My Blood, fans sang in full-throated stereo as lasers crisscrossed overhead. And when the band nudged everyone off an emotional cliff with the confessional Car Radio and night-closing gut-punch Trees, tears streamed in the front rows, voices showered from the cheap seats and confetti hailed from the sky like fallout. Even after the arena lights came on, dozens of fans lingered on the floor as long as they could, snapping photos and hurling that confetti back in the air to make the night last just a few minutes longer.
It's an old cliché, this idea of music made for misfits by misfits (a line recited more or less verbatim in the new Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody). But with Twenty One Pilots, it does seem to fit. They're clicking – Clique-ing? – with something few other artists can. There's a reason this show sold out in hours, and likely would again if they announced a second one here next weekend.
And so at the end of the world, when the last car burns and misfits in balaclavas roam the streets, which band do you think is best suited to survive? Stash some black and yellow duds in your fallout bunker. When the end of days hits, you're gonna want the Clique to see you coming. They've got tents, and they're in this thing to the end.
— Jay Cridlin