KLC Corner: Twenty One Pilots wow at first Portland show

By Emily Bannon /// Staff Writer

By 4:00 p.m., the line in front of the Roseland Theatre was already winding down 6th Avenue and curling around the corner. I wander to the end and back, surveying the assembled crowd-mostly teenagers, the majority clad in band merchandise. Ten or twenty kids wore homemade t-shirts. It’s obvious who the crowd has showed up for, and they’re not the opening acts.

Ben Kassman
Photo by Ben Kassman

Cincinnati natives Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun are Twenty One Pilots—Joseph sings and plays piano and ukulele; Dun drums. Their debut self-titled album was well-received, but the band didn’t reach the music mainstream until 2012, when they were signed to alt label Fueled by Ramen. Their third and latest album, “Vessel,” includes radio-popular hits like “House of Gold” and “Car Radio.”

“They’re really outspoken about helping people,” a girl wearing a homemade t-shirt said. It’s a common theme—everyone I talk with echoes the sentiment. Two quiet girls with brightly-dyed hair say that the band saved their lives. At the front of the line, stands a group of fans who drove from Salt Lake City—a 14 hour trip. They fell into the “skeleton clique” (the name that Twenty One Pilots fans have given themselves). “I found them during a hard time,” one boy said. “They made me feel like weakness is okay.”

“We’re broken people,” his friend added. The entire group nods in agreement. “But, you know,” someone said, “that’s okay.” They’re excited to learn that I’m also a fan; we talk about our favorite songs and how much the lyrics mean to us. Twenty One Pilots don’t shy away from writing about depression, anxiety and suicide.

“The message is that you’re not alone,” a teenage boy said softly. His homemade shirt, written in careful Sharpie, says “our brains are sick, but that’s okay.”

Ben Kassman
Photo by Ben Kassman

The show’s openers are bright, fun, get-up-and-dance music. Milwaukee band Vinyl Theatre play songs from their album Electrogram, including guitar-heavy “Breaking Up My Bones” and pop-influenced “Summer.” Frontman Keegan Calmes throws himself into the performance and demonstrates a surprising falsetto that gets the crowd screaming and clapping. MisterWives, an NYC-based band, is soulful, and has the crowd cheering.

Lead singer Mandy Lee dances around the stage with a tambourine, snapping her fingers and grinning. Their songs are clearly influenced by jazz and blues; there’s trumpet and saxophone and lots of riffing on the bass. Both openers are more than promising.

When Twenty One Pilots come on, the crowd goes wild. People press and scream, chanting the band’s name. There’s electricity in the air— the product of a people who are unashamedly excited. The two take the stage wearing ski masks—something that has become representative of the duo—and open with the powerful “Guns for Hands.” The show follows an upward spiral; it’s a roller coaster of hard-hitting songs. Joseph raps, plays the ukulele on fan favorite “House of Gold;” during upbeat “Semi-Automatic.”

Twenty One Pilots are nothing if not varied—they incorporate ukulele, rap, piano and keyboard, percussion—so varied that they practically defy genre. Songs range from rap-heavy “Car Radio” and “Kitchen Sink,” to folky “House of Gold” and slow, tear-jerking “Truce.”

Photo By Ben Kassman
Photo By Ben Kassman

Joseph and Dun are full of an energy fringing on manic. They throw themselves headfirst into the performance in a way that hits hard—despite doing this three, four, six times a week. It seems like they’re experiencing the same emotions that we are, at the same time, and just as fully.The band concludes with “Car Radio” while the crowd screams along, matching Tyler Joseph word-for-word. Their encore starts with “Truce,” a hard-hitting piano ballad, and ends with hopeful, upbeat “Trees.” When the stage goes dark, the audience cheers for a solid five minutes.

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