November 6, 2018
Imagine a city. A city surrounded by stone walls that reach all the way up into the heavens. A city that seems impenetrable from the outside and inescapable from within. Can you see it in your mind? Because that's exactly where the city of Dema is located.
A metaphor for depression, Dema is the setting of Twenty One Pilots' latest studio album Trench. It's a place from which the narrator is attempting to escape, but it's also, in some ways, his home. It's where, for better or worse, vocalist Tyler Joseph pulls so much of his inspiration. And that complicates his relationship with it.
On Tuesday night, at a a sold-out Toyota Center, Tyler and percussionist Josh Dunn took 20,000 screaming fans on a journey through this fictional city. It was filled with vultures, priests who suppress its inhabitants and a group of banditos determined to evacuate as many people as possible. There was even a pet cheetah in the basement.
Headlining their biggest Houston show to date, Twenty One Pilots pulled out all the stops Tuesday night. Their performance included plenty of longtime antics such as Josh playing his kit atop the crowd and Tyler climbing some scaffolding near the end of the show, but it also took full advantage of the larger stage.
The lights were brighter, and the video screen behind the band supplemented their act with scenes from Dema. At one point, Josh's kit was raised at least 50 feet into the air for a drum solo. Later, a platform descended from the venue's ceiling and Tyler, clad in a yellow suit jacket, ran back and forth across it above fans' outstretched hands.
Beginning the set with the first two tracks from Trench, Tyler emerged onstage atop a burning car. His face was hidden behind a ski mask, and Josh's was obscured by a yellow bandana. After they tore through "Jumpsuit" and "Levitate," Tyler threw himself off the car and out of the crowd's field of vision, only to reemerge in the second deck for "Fairly Local."
Six tracks from the Blurryface era followed. "We Don't Believe What's On TV" felt like an especially appropriate track on election night, while the likes of "Stressed out" and "Heathens" gave the audience a refresher on the previous album's themes and their connection to the new material.
About halfway through the show, the band performed "Neon Gravestones," which critiqued the way our society responds to suicide. It was a cutting number that provoked a range of emotions from attendees. But given the number of musicians we've lost to suicide recently — Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington and Avicii, to name a few — it felt like a necessary criticism.
Because Dema can be an overwhelming setting. Some days, it's a city in the distance. Other days, you might wake up there. But there are trenches to hide in, and there are other people to lean on in those trenches. Family, friends and banditos who are rooting for you.
Tyler himself sang as much during "Leave The City," which began Tuesday night's encore:
"Though I'm far from home / In Trench, I'm not alone."
Earlier this week, I wrote about my personal experience with Twenty One Pilots' music. In the days since, I have received half a dozen emails from strangers who also found hope and solace it the band's message. Looking around at the sold-out crowd Tuesday night, it really got to me. This whole movement. This Skelton Clique. This trench that all of TOP's fans are in together. It's a really special thing happening for a lot of people, and I'm having a blast watching it grow.
We Don't Believe What's On TV
Nico And The Niners
Holding On To You
Iris (Goo Goo Dolls cover)
Hey Jude (Beatles cover)
Leave The City