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LIVE: twenty one pilots @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London

It’s fair to say that before 2020, London had gotten a little complacent when it came to having twenty one pilots in town. Their one-off Complete Diversion show back in September 2018 gave us the world’s first glance into what the pair had in store as it kicked off the band’s massive ‘Trench’ era, and […]

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It’s fair to say that before 2020, London had gotten a little complacent when it came to having twenty one pilots in town. Their one-off Complete Diversion show back in September 2018 gave us the world’s first glance into what the pair had in store as it kicked off the band’s massive ‘Trench’ era, and it was only a few months later that they returned with the full set for three nights at the (then) SSE Arena, Wembley. And all this came after five years of watching Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun grow their very special musical venture into the beast it is today. 

Now, after almost three unwilling years away, twenty one pilots have decided that one London show just isn’t enough to mark their return, instead including it in their worldwide ‘TAKEØVER TØUR’ that has seen them settling into one city for a week, making their way through some of the the best venues each city has to offer.

The London tour kicked off last night in Camden at the Assembly pub where they played to no more than 250 of the luckiest fans. Tonight, we ramp things up slightly in the larger but still wildly intimate Shepherd’s Bush Empire and despite holding 10 times the number of fans, in a reality where twenty one pilots easily headline Reading and Leeds Festivals, we still feel just as lucky to be here.

Later on tonight, Joseph will refer to London as “home” and declare through a Cheshire cat smile just how great it is to have live music back after being “dead” for so long. From the response, it’s clear that he and his best buddy Josh Dun sure as hell feel like home to us, too, and we couldn’t be happier to be here for their homecoming. 

While yesterday took pilots and their Skeleton Clique way back to the “Power to the local dreamer” days of 2013, today things feel immediately grander and more polished while still maintaining “the few, the proud and the emotional” community that was prevalent at the start of the ‘Blurryface’ album cycle back in 2015. There’s just about room for a screen on stage, which the band makes great use of throughout, showing footage that adds context and depth to the show, and allows for visual nods to the twenty one pilots lore that fans love to delve into with each new record. Later on, it will also give the newly added touring band members a platform on which to play, all happily and uniformly donning jumpsuits with various symbols that will be instantly recognisable to anyone in this room tonight.

It’s the first time the band have been joined on stage by additional band members, and it’s no secret that fans have been nervous about this change. There was no reason to fear, however, as while they do each get their moment to shine – Joseph takes a moment to introduce each by name partway through ‘Saturday’ later on in the set – Joseph and Dun will always be the stars of the show. This way, however, the live performance is hugely amplified as there’s far less reliance on backing tracks, meaning the sound is stronger and more impactful than ever before. 

The fans in attendance tonight seem to notice this improved sound and are certainly not put off by the change in format. From the get go, they scream the lyrics without needing a moment to think, as the first part of the set sees the band seamlessly making their way through a medley of songs from all eras. At times, this medley gives certain songs no more than one line from a verse; the rap in ‘Fairly Local’ is picked up in less than a beat as Blurryface appears on the screens, the crowd excitedly embracing being “the few, the proud and the emotional” again here tonight, and similarly, the short snippet of 2021’s ‘Redecorate’ is echoed back with ease. 

As you might imagine, a sold out venue of this size combined with one of the most fierce fanbases of our time makes for an unparalleled atmosphere. It’s sweaty. People are packed wall to wall, side to side and front to back and those confident enough to brave the bar find themselves pressed against it while they wait for their beers to be served, only to immediately have the plastic pints knocked from their hands as they re-enter the crowd. The air is sticky (as is the floor), smiles are unwavering and carefree, bodies are slick, and this is exactly how a twenty one pilots show should feel; fuelled by passion, love and a desperate need to let go of the world outside.

While on previous tours the pair have maintained on-stage personas, tonight feels different in that sense, too. Joseph breaks out of character on numerous occasions to confidently chat to the crowd and a smile sits almost permanently on his face as he looks to his bandmate and best friend so that they might drink in the evening together. What better opportunity to do this than when they gather around a ‘campfire’ for a stripped back, acoustic part of the set? Setting the scene by acknowledging that this is their first time experiencing sunshine in the UK, they kick off a medley of sunshine themed covers before transitioning back into their own catalogue with ‘House of Gold’, during which Joseph mentions his mum, who inspired the song, is here in the audience tonight. 

To give tonight the justice it deserves would be to delve into every fibre of its fabric; every second feels intentional. From the smoke that seeps through Joseph’s balaclava to the nods from last year’s live stream, to the pits that open up during the chaotic ‘Jumpsuit’, to the black paint that Joseph coats his hands in prior to performance 2015’s ‘Message Man’ – to every image that appears on the screens on stage and every one of the thousand moments in between. There’s no doubt by the time tonight ends that twenty one pilots are perfectionists through and through, and despite having quickly and easily grown to being a comfortable arena sized band, this 2,000 capacity venue feels just as special and well thought out as those larger venues we’ve become accustomed to. The smiles that sit firmly on Joseph and Dun’s faces throughout are a testament to their endless humility, almost suggesting that it’s these smaller, more intimate moments that mean the most to them – a nod to just how much they’ve grown and a reminder to never forget their roots. 

For many this band feels like a safe space, like an escape from a world that’s otherwise tricky to navigate. They feel understood and accepted and, best of all, they get to experience all of this in a room full of other people just like them, with Joseph and Dun at the helm. As the pair clamber on top of the crowd to close out the set with synchronised drumming at the end of ‘Trees’, and as the rainbow confetti rains down gently on us, this sense of safety feels mutual, with Joseph and Dun needing us just as much as we have ever needed them. 

The following night, twenty one pilots will win the Kerrang! Award for best live act and it’s perpetually clear why this is the case. Few bands can command the crowd in the way Joseph does and few can adapt a show as huge as theirs to feel just as organic in small venues such as Shepherd’s Bush. Tonight has been unique in that it’s been both a trip down memory lane as well as a chance to see just how far this band have come since they last touched down on our shores in 2019. From a new found confidence to the tightest set they’ve ever played, twenty one pilots never fail to amaze and we never fail to find more reasons to love them.

YASMIN BROWN

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