My daughter Chuck and I are on the light rail to downtown St. Paul. She’s absolutely quaking with excitement for Imagine Dragons at the Xcel Energy Center -- her first visit there since Taylor Swift in 2015.
Where once she was a wide-eyed seven year old, now she’s a jaded pop-music expert of nine. For my part, I’m equal parts dutiful dad and open-minded rock writer on this Monday evening. She looks at me, and says, “I love downtown St. Paul, it’s so cool! It’s got the Science Museum, the History Center, the Children’s Museum, AND the Xcel Center! What does downtown Minneapolis have? Just a bunch of businesses!”
It’s so great raising a music fan that knows what side of the river she lives on.
Since their first local show, way back in the olden days at the sadly soon-to-be-closed Triple Rock Social Club, Imagine Dragons have exploded to be one of the biggest bands in “alternative” music. What that label really means anymore is unclear: Pop music is pop music, and rock 'n' roll is rock 'n' roll, and if all “alternative” means is “can draw 15,000 to Xcel, but not quite fill Target Center,” then I suggest we drop it completely. To quote The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Turns out that was going to be a theme for the night. We arrived at the show just in time to catch most of K.Flay, whose electronic alt-pop was a solid foundation for her impassioned, sometimes breathless vocals. It’s rare to see an arena show where a performer -- even an opener -- eschews flash for substance, but K.Flay, her guitarist, and her drummer, came to the stage dressed in loose black jumpsuits, and put on a sweat-breaking, unpretentious performance that didn’t need much in the way of laser lights. I was surprised to discover that K.Flay is considered a “rapper;” if her performance is an indication, it’s by the loosest possible definition. More solid pop with a vocalist who knows how to work a stage.
Chuck’s Review: One mostly enthusiastic thumbs up.
Next up was Grouplove, and this is where the wheels came off the wagon.
The band is probably best known for having a song featured on Glee, which from now on I’ll take as a warning sign. Apparently, their drummer Ryan Rabin’s father is Trevor Rabin of '70s proggers Yes, but to his band, I say No. I don’t know how else to say this other than with brutal honesty: In almost 30 years and more than 6,000 bands, Grouplove’s set was one of the top 10 worst performances I’ve ever seen. In many ways, they were the exact opposite of K.Flay -- flashy, uninspired, mediocre pop music that is only slightly passable with the benefit of studio trickery.
You could smell the trust funds burning onstage. When people say bad things about millennial hipsters, they mean Grouplove. Vocalist Hannah Hooper attempted to evoke Lady Miss Kier from Dee-lite in a snow-leopard catsuit and two-tone hair with little of the actual vocal talent. Co-vocalist/guitarist Christian Zucconi caterwauled and danced like no one was watching -- or wanted to.
The two had difficulty staying in tune whether singing together or on their own. Hooper’s singing was mostly uninteresting, while Zucconi’s vocals -- which are pretty nasal and grating even on their studio output -- were like nails on a chalkboard, except substitute “nails” for “your balls” and “chalkboard” for “a slamming car door.” For perspective: I’m saying the vocals were unlistenable and I own a record by a band called Severed Heads Of State. Also, their new single totally bites the chorus of “Love Stinks” by the J.Geils Band.
Chuck’s Review: Head buried in my armpit begging for it to stop.
After a long changeover that felt longer because of the horror we’d just witnessed, Imagine Dragons took the stage in an explosion of lights and video that quickly washed the palate clean. Say what you will, but Imagine Dragons are where they’re at because they absolutely know how to write pop songs, ones they workshop with producers to perfection. But, as I’ve noted above, that seems a far cry from the music that inspired the term “alternative” almost three decades ago.
The many kids in the crowd and plenitude of adults went wild for song after song, and deservedly so. Every single song is catchy as hell, and Imagine Dragons manage to evoke a wide variety of sounds and styles into one seamless pop package. Sometimes they use keyboard sounds straight out of '80s pop hits; sometimes they sound “inspirational” the way the choir at a hip church does; sometimes they sound like the hard-rockin' soundtrack to a pickup truck ad. All of it was tied together with seamless precision and showmanship.
But -- and what sort of critic would I be if there wasn’t a but? -- I listen to music because I’m looking for soul, honesty, sincerity -- something beyond Top 40 music machine. That's where I had my doubts about Imagine Dragons. Musically, vocalist Dan Reynolds -- bedecked in this weird half-jumpsuit, white but covered in stains, making him look sort of like a ninja working at a butcher shop -- and his bandmates are both talented and extremely well studied. Two of them attended Berklee, one of the best-known music schools in the world. Their technical skill is unparalleled.
Last night’s performance, on the other hand, sometimes felt like stylistic plug-and-play. This was never more obvious than during their acoustic cover of “I Won’t Back Down,” originally by the recently deceased Tom Petty. Petty was an equal mix of raw talent and a slightly-off southern swagger. In Imagine Dragons’ hands, the lazy shuffle of Petty’s style was lost to the perfectly quantized precision of trained musicians.
But here’s the thing -- I have no doubt of ID’s sincere love of Tom Petty. It’s precisely that sincerity that kept me hanging in there. When Reynolds introduced their second song, “It’s Time,” with an impassioned speech about music bringing people together and politics not dividing us in the wake of the horrifying mass shooting his band's hometown of Las Vegas, I believed he felt every word. When they walked through the crowd hugging fans on their way to and from the small secondary acoustic stage, it felt like a love-in, not an obligation.
Later in the set, when Reynolds talked about his struggles with depression, how it led him to be an artist and musician, and how no one should be ashamed to struggle and to seek therapy, he meant it. So yeah, Imagine Dragons might lack the rock 'n' roll swing to balance their technical proficiency and sheer peppitude, but I walked out surprised and impressed with their honesty.
Chuck’s Review: Two enthusiastic, if very sleepy, thumbs up.
Critic’s Bias: Even when I give bands good reviews, I usually have fans threatening me with violence (see comments). I sure hope the Grouplove Army doesn’t march on my house with pitchforks and torches.
Chuck’s Bias: My dad has the coolest job but his music taste mostly stinks.
The Crowd: Far more kids than I was expecting for a school night. A SCHOOL NIGHT, PEOPLE!
Overheard in the Crowd: “You know that Beatles song ‘Helter Skelter’? It was about Charles Manson.” Fourteen-year-old me doing a presentation on the Manson murders with Mark Finke in 9th grade history class is shuddering.
I Don't Know Why
Whatever It Takes
I'll Make It Up to You
Mouth of the River
I'm So Sorry
On Top of the World
I Won't Back Down (Tom Petty cover)
I Bet My Life
Walking the Wire