21 Pilots

By Paul Piazza

When I saw 21 Pilots for the first time, I have to admit I had no idea who they were. They were one of the new acts rotating between two smaller stages at Live 105’s BFD at the Shoreline Ampitheatre last June. Thus far, the bands on this unseasonably warm day had failed to impress. However, as I approached the stage, I sensed an energy unlike any other coming from their fans gathered at the rail. It felt like utter devotion. And as it turns out, the passion of their fans was justified, because they put on the best set of the day.

The duo of Tyler Joseph (vocals/keys) and Josh Dunn(drums, trumpet) hit the stage that afternoon with sheer presence. Dunn was wearing an alien mask as he started rapidly bashing away at his kit and Joseph the vocalist donned a red beanie, oval white sunglasses and was painted from the neck down to his fingertips in some sort of gray, ashen tone. He reached up for a microphone that was suspended from a cable like a mic in a boxing match and when he pulled it down and started gliding all over the stage to the bounce of Dunn’s drum crack on “Heavydirtysoul” it sealed the deal. They literally took the place over.

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The majority of the fans in attendance seemed to know all the words to their songs, which were pretty darn catchy. It sounded like poetry over good piano licks and great beats. Sometimes Joseph’s cadence sped up to a hip-hop delivery at others melancholy a synth accompaniment. Most of the choruses had great hooks. Occasionally Joseph took out a ukelele. He walked out over the crowd at one point like he was walking on water. I thought to myself…these guys might have something here.

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As it turns out, the two have experienced tremendous success touring on the 2015 album “Blurryface.” The song “Stressed out” jumped to the top of both the Billboard alternative charts and Hot Rock Songs and reached number two overall. Later, they were awarded the top rock album at the Billboard Music Awards. This year, they won artist of the year at the Alternative Press Music awards. Perhaps most importantly, they captured this year’s Kerrang Awards category of Best Fan Base.

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And now, here we were at the Greek, barely over one year later, and the band was beginning a run of two sold-out shows at the legendary Berkeley amphitheater. It was a beautiful Bay Area night, with a cool breeze and lots of red beanies in the crowd—a nod to Tyler. The theatrics commenced early. The band came out in a pair of matching red suits with black ski masks. A few songs into the show, drummer Josh Dunn stepped out from behind the kit and played a trumpet solo flanked by two stage hands playing marching snares. They were wearing outer space hazmat suits. Later Dunn performed a perfectly executed backflip off of Joseph’s piano. Not long after that, he ventured into the crowd on a drum kit mounted on a platform.

 

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Not to be outdone, Joseph got into a giant human-sized hamster ball and rolled over the audience. Then he upped the ante, when he scaled the scaffolding that looms high above the stage and finished a song at the apex of the venue. That was impressive. While this was all going on, one could get a sense of how this band hits their fans, by looking at the faces of their fans which spanned generations. This was affirmed when I watched a father and daughter happily singing along to “Tear in my heart.”

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I’ve seen this band three times now and they seem to challenge themselves with each performance. Touring almost nonstop has been a big part of this. At one point in the show, the band brought out all of the members of both openers Mute Math and Chef’Special and they all covered a Beatles song, a Celine Dion song and finished the two band sit-in with House of Pain’s “Jump Around.” That was a nice touch.

It will be interesting to see what happens when they start headlining arenas early next year. It’s safe to say that their dedicated fans will be there along for the ride.