There was not a computer to be found on the stage at Owl City's Pageant performance last night. That may come as a surprise to those who think of the band's singer and mastermind Adam Young as a "laptop artist," one who creates his music without much input from "real" (read: non-digital) instruments. Where Young's recorded output often suffers from the sterility and confinement of computer-driven compositions, his live show takes the building blocks of his songs and layers on several coats of exuberant live instrumentation.
That's not to say that Owl City's show was 100% live and of-the-moment: there were certainly drum machine beats, and I don't doubt that some unseen hand was triggering loops and samples offstage, but the show succeeded in bringing Young's delicately crafted MIDI symphonies to life without sacrificing the breathless wonderment that courses through his lyrics.
Casting his songs with a full band worked to Young's advantage. Freed from his computer, the singer, guitarist and keyboardist was able dance, preen and interact with the crowd. The lithe, lanky Young seems to have made peace with his status as a teen idol, and he was greeted to a chorus of eardrum-piercing squeals from the tweens and teens packed into the Pageant's dance floor. (Unsurprisingly, the young crowd left the venue's 21-and-up areas relatively uncluttered.)
From the show's start, it was clear that Owl City wanted to assert itself as a band and not an electronic pop project. The show opened with "Umbrella Beach," as some melodic interplay from the violin and cello players introduced the theme before the drummer and the vibraphone/keyboard/guitar player kicked in. With all the pieces in place, Young approached his keyboard rig and pumped out the song's bright, cheery chords. Owl City's most aggressive (to use the term liberally) moments have the buzzy simplicity of European disco-pop, and "Umbrella Beach" set an upbeat tone with the song's brick-to-the-head lack of subtlety.
For an artist who has made his name through keyboard-based songs, Young spent more time with his guitars than he did with his synths. "The Bird and the Worm" featured his acoustic guitar playing, and later in the set, "Cave In" featured Young and the multi-instrumentalist squaring off with loud electric guitar chords, all intricately timed to the light show. It was an old arena-rock trick, but it worked to bring some rock & roll grandeur to the proceedings. Those who are only familiar with Owl City's number-one single "Fireflies" already has a pretty good idea of the band's sound. Even without such a heavy reliance on keyboards, the live set maintains the twinkly sweetness of the records through vibraphone and glockenspiel. And while Young's voice could be charitably classified as a high tenor, his female pianist often lent harmony to his high, breathy vocals. At some point, though, the onslaught of sweetness was like adding a packet of sugar to a can of 7-Up: there's gotta be some salt to even out the flavor. Luckily, the cellist added some low, scraping notes during "Dear Vienna," and the drummer's stuttering beats made the song a dark-tinted reprieve amid the oft-blinding sunshine. The textured, ambient tension returned for the intro to "This is the Future," which featured droning strings and bowed vibes before hitting lift-off.
Last night's show was a make-up date: Young had to cancel the January 23 concert due to an emergency kidney stone operation (which he joked about and apologized for during "The Technicolor Phase"). While interest in the band was higher a few months ago, it was worth the wait for the throngs of boys and girls pressed close together during Owl City's songs of young love, true faith, and wide-eyed naiveté, And that's not a slam on Young or his fans; there's something to be said for teenagers singing along to songs of innocence instead of songs of experience. Owl City could hardly be less threatening - Young's songs live on a diet of ice cream and chocolate kisses, dappled by an eternal summer's sun. If you're old and jaded, Owl City's virginal pillow talk and odes to hand-holding can seem beyond fey. But if you're young, or young enough to remember that initial blush of first love or the challenge of crafting your identity, Owl City offers words of encouragement and recognition from a fellow traveler.
1. "Umbrella Beach" 2. "The Bird and the Worm" 3. "Air Traffic" 4. "On the Wing" 5. "Hot Air Balloon" 6. "Dear Vienna" 7. "Fuzzy Blue Lights" 8. "Cave In" 9. "This is the Future" 10. "Dental Care" 11. "The Technicolor Phase" 12. "Fireflies" 13. "Meteor Shower" 14. "Vanilla Twilight" 15. "The Tip of the Iceberg"