words by kelly gonsalves | photos by stephanie nan
Following this summer’s release of his fourth full-length album, The Midsummer Station, Owl City took off on an international tour across the continent. I have been a casual listener of this one-man electropop project for nearly five years now, and having just reviewed said new album in great depth, I figured it was about time I take the step forward to witness it in the flesh.
To put it point-blank, you have not truly experienced Owl City’s music until you hear it live.
The show took place last Tuesday on September 11, 2012, at Irving Plaza, a rather popular New York City venue with a capacity of 1,000 people. I arrived a mere three hours before the show but, surprisingly, managed to score a second-row spot in the crowd. The room was only moderately full when I checked before the opening act, but by the time Owl City took the stage, it was fully packed – and with a surprisingly diverse crowd in terms of age and gender. Middle-aged women and college males alike piled in, along with the usual hoards of teenage girls, to see Adam Young in action.
Only a handful of people attended solely to see the opening act, a relatively fresh pop-rock act called Action Item, but this four-piece band definitely succeeded in scoring the crowd’s attention and approval. In fact, prior to the start of the show, lead guitarist Anthony Li could be found doing a little preemptive promoting for his band, personally introducing himself and his band to the first ten to twenty people in line. On stage, the boys engaged in a little tomfoolery with the crowd, evening stopping in the middle of their set to pose for what they called “the perfect rock show picture,” pictured below:
In terms of sound, the live renditions of their catchy summer tunes were surprisingly mellow in comparison to their studio-recorded counterparts. “Last Day of Summer,” their most recent single, had me jamming in my room for a good seven days straight after its release, but the live performance of the same song had me nodding my head at most. During “Marching Band,” however, there was an exciting moment in which all four members of the band took to drumsticks and pounded out a true marching band beat that definitely got the heart pumping. Overall, Action Item kept the crowd entertained for sure.
All hell broke loose, however, when Owl City took the stage. Before anything else, let’s take a moment to appreciate what physically occurred on stage. When on tour, Adam, the band’s sole member, is accompanied by a four-person supporting band, each a shockingly talented multi-instrumentalist working at least three different instruments per song and a switchboard the size of Rhode Island. Watching these individuals work their magic was entrancing: Daniel Jorgensen shuffling between guitar, synthesizers, and vibraphone; Steve Goold pounding away on drums, both real and electric; Jasper Nephew balancing synthesizer, strings, percussion, and guitar, which at one point he even played with a bow (“my favorite part of the show,” he told me later); and Breanne Duren operating two keyboards in addition to her sweet backup vocals. Then to top it off, there was Adam himself, rocking what must be the same outrageous dance moves he struts when alone in his bedroom. In fact, Adam seldom addressed the crowd at all – he is one of the few performers in the industry who can get away with so little crowd interaction while still putting on an incredibly engaging show.
The set began with The Midsummer Station’s opening track, “Dreams and Disasters,” and went on to include eleven out of the twelve songs off the new album, interspersed with some of his older hits. Admittedly, the album came off a lot better live than it did in studio – every piece seemed to possess a new rock-tinged edge when performed live, creating a harder, fist-pumping sort of energy not present in the more chirpier sound of their recorded versions.
One song that played particularly better was the bouncy “I’m Coming After You,” a tacky little piece comparing courtship to car chases. On the record, this song had me rolling my eyes at the cheesy metaphors, but tonight, those same lines met cheers and laughter when coupled with Adam’s silly facial expressions and ridiculous attempts at making siren noises with his mouth. For a man as reportedly introverted as Adam is said to be (according to long-standing fans with whom I conversed), those emotive faces came out frequently during the lighter songs of the night, including “Deer in the Headlights,” in which Adam facially reenacted the experience of being totally rejected by a girl in a supermarket, and “Speed of Love.”
Perhaps the success of the performance, then, spawned directly from the way Adam interacted with his music. Along with his just-barely-socially-acceptable dance moves, which featured swishing his open hands around in the air back and forth like a wizard trying to conjure up dark spirits, Adam was visually living and breathing each song. He only played one instrument the entire night (in comparison to on the record, where he plays every instrument on every track), but he could be seen fingering the mic stand like a synth or a guitar, playing invisible notes and chords on it as if he was still the one making the music. Similarly, Adam would mouth the words to Breanne’s lines and air-drum perfectly in sync with Steve. At times, the man seemed altogether unaware of the thousand-member audience before him. He was totally taken by the music.
Some of the highlights of the show included the explosive sing-along that took place during “Fireflies,” Owl City’s one radio hit and arguably his most well-known song, and “Kamikaze,” which invited crowd chants and reckless club energy. About halfway through the set, the band even played a three-minute instrumental piece, to which Adam told the audience to “enjoy the ride.”
Amidst all the excitement, Adam did stop several times throughout the night to pay respects to the tragedy that occurred in that very city eleven years ago. “This song is in memory of 9/11,” he told the audience before jumping into a particularly emotional rendition of “Angels.” The performance of “Meteor Shower,” a short but powerful piece from his first major record, Ocean Eyes, was a true heart-tugger as well, especially at the end, when Adam thrusted his finger in the air, pointing upwards – a shameless, sincere shout-out to the Big Man upstairs.
After an entire show of very minimal talking, the night came to an end with an unexpected speech from Adam. Like any gracious artist, he took to thanking the crowd: “If I said all my thanks, there would be tears everywhere, everyone would be crying, and that wouldn’t be very fun.” He conveyed his gratitude that every person in the room had chosen to be here, “of all the places you could’ve been, and in New York of all places.” The audience was shouting in response by that point, and I could hear people all around me telling Adam that there was no other place they would rather be. Hands were thrown into the air in the shape of hearts, and there was something unspeakably tender about the way Adam avoided eye contact with the room as he spoke.
“This is coming from the most inarticulate person in the room,” he explained, to which the crowd erupted in disagreement. “And certainly the least deserving.”
From there, Owl City broke into The Midsummer Station’s closing track, “Take It All Away,” finishing with all five performers hammering it out on drums. The band then vacated the stage, but it was hardly two minutes before they were back out for the encore: a bursting performance of Owl City’s current hit single, “Good Time,” with Breanne taking over Carly Rae Jepsen’s lines. The entire room was in the air.
At the end of this bouncy pop number, Adam gave the crowd his final words of the evening: “This room is number 79 on the periodic table. I can see it.”
With these parting words, Owl City concluded the night with the song “Gold.”