Imagine Dragons Soars at US Airways Center

Imagine Dragons isn't afraid to cut loose at concerts.EXPAND
Imagine Dragons isn't afraid to cut loose at concerts.
All photos by Jim Louvau

It occurred to me as I was swimming through the herds of thousands of people to find my seat that it's been a very long time since I've been to an arena show. I usually stick to festivals and clubs the size of the Marquee Theatre for more prominent nationally known bands or venues like Crescent Ballroom for indie faves. So I found myself with several thousand people in US Airways Arena, slightly anxious and terrified, but thrilled to see Halsey, Metric, and Imagine Dragons. I got there in time to catch every act and it turned out that Halsey was sick and had to cancel. It also turns out she wasn't the only one that was sick. Still, the evening was charged with electricity from beginning to end, but I would have loved to kick off the evening with the spacey dream-pop of Halsey.

It wasn't announced that Halsey had cancelled, so I was surprised when the lights went down at eight that Metric took the stage in full force. I just hadn't prepared for that, but still, I love Metric, so I couldn't complain and they owned ever moment of their 45-minute set. It's been a few years since I've seen Metric and their set was even better than I remembered. They opened with "Stadium Love" from the band's 2009 landmark album Fantasies and it was a perfect way to get the crowd in a frenzy. Lead singer Emily Haines gave a little pep talk that really broke down to "Whoever has the most fun wins" after the song. They followed it up immediately with the driving, anthemic, new song "Too Bad, So Sad" from their forthcoming album Pagans In Vegas. Simply put this is already one of their best songs in their catalog already and it was only released for digital purchase last Friday. More memories from the turn of the decade arose with "Black Sheep" (from the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack) and at this point they had the ever growing audience in their hands. The guitar heavy "Help I'm Alive," which featured very nearly no synths was a refreshing rocker and it was one of the finest in the set. I saw them on the tour for Fantasies and it reminded me was a solid album that was and how well the songs have aged in six years. They followed with the brand new song "Cascades" after a swift change where the band members were wearing LED sunglasses or visors and Haines donned a sheer cape to flow behind her dramatically. It was pure synth-pop delight which could only be described as a heavy handed keyboard assault on the soul, with Haines even getting behind the keys for this one. 

Imagine Dragons Soars at US Airways Center (5)

The title track for 2012's Synthetica followed. Haines introduced the song with a fascinating monologue about finding yourself and being yourself and the importance of that. She wasn't sure how everyone should go about it but she said, "For me I found it by playing independent music for 15 years with these guys." The song is a perfect summation of just that spirit. "Gold Guns Girls" came next, and I was deeply impressed when even Haines grabbed a guitar for this one. By the time that they got into "Breathing Underwater," I noticed she had donned a hat and was wearing a sheer, flowing, full-length robe, looking like an indie rock Stevie Nicks. It was a beautiful sight to behold. Metric finished with the first single from their new album, "The Shade." It was another guitar-heavy number with some synth flourishes, but it occurred to me that the guitar-centric songs were what really got me going, as well as the audience. I was hoping they would play even more songs, but with Haines' grateful goodbye, their set was done. It was a fantastic, tight set from end to end and it was the perfect opener for the Imagine Dragons set to follow.

At the end of the Metric set a magical looking, triangular white curtain dropped in front of the stage and the wait for the Grammy-winning Imagine Dragons began. Most people used this time wisely to attain ridiculously overpriced concessions, use the bathroom, smoke, buy merch or otherwise kill time in some sort of line. A large percentage of the still growing crowd remained where they were, rooted to the spot in eager anticipation of the spectacle that was to come. For the entire half hour without entertainment, you could feel the growing sense of urgency that the crowd needed to see Imagine Dragons. And when this palpable sense of desire hit an excruciating threshold, the houselights shut off and the brilliant curtain was lit up, with shadows of the band members and smoke looming gigantically the crowd roared with excitement. It was as though everyone's soul screamed "Here we go!" at once. 

With that in mind the band kicked into their newest single "Shots." As soon as the curtain lifted and it was clear that the Smoke + Mirrors tour was pulling out all the stops. There were screens on the sides to show stage details you might miss if you weren't in the tenth row, a vastly elaborate set design, a laser set up, and quite literally smoke and mirrors, for the sake of authenticity toward the album name. I honestly haven't seen such elaboration on set design for a tour since The Killers or Arcade Fire. It was fairly refreshing. The stage even had a walkway and crowd stage set up for lead singer Dan Reynolds, fit and sporting a "man-bun," to stroll onto at his leisure.

By the time they launched into "Trouble" it became apparent that Reynolds simply has a great stage presence. He's not only a talented vocalist and musician, but a superbly brilliant performer and entertainer. The song from their newest album was also the first time that featured him pounding the holy hell out of a giant bass drum.

Before the next song Reynolds greeted Phoenix properly and explained that they almost cancelled the evenings show because "I woke up this morning and I was sick." He further explained, "We haven't cancelled a show in years and we're not about to do it now." The band then launched into the appropriate "It's Time," from their multi-platinum debut Night Visions, which sincerely explains that "I'm never going to let you down." And they did not. Hell, if he hadn't mentioned that he was ill, no one would have been the wiser. The audience sang along to every word. After the song finished and following several minutes of applause, he simply announced, "We love you Phoenix." What followed was unexpected, with only Reynolds and keyboard player William F. Wells on the stage, they presented a cover of Alphaville's "Forever Young." The arena lit up with cell phone lighter and flashlight apps as well as a few actual lighters for its entirety. I couldn't help but wonder if there was a fair percentage of the audience wondering if this was a brand new Imagine Dragons song that they hadn't heard before or not.

Oddly, there was no elaborate light show for the brilliant medley of "Amsterdam/Tiptoe/Bleeding Out", all from Night Visions. Reynolds was, however, making full use of the walkway and audience stage as they blended the songs together with perfection. It's pretty magical when a guy admits he feels like shit and he puts on a stunning high-energy show like this. Another amazing factor is that I like that Imagine Dragons are clearly not married to performing the album versions of the songs without taking any liberties. This medley proved that alone, but even on the newer songs they went way beyond what was laid down in the studio. This finished with a very sentimental intro to the rest of the band members. "Polaroid" is one of my absolute favorites from the new album, and it was fit that the brilliant light show returned for its performance. There is something great about anyone singing "I am a head case I am the color of boom" no matter what the occasion. The wondrous guitar solo that began "I'm So Sorry" was unexpected, then the bass joined in and the entire band explodes. It was one of the shockers of the evening and a track that is so much more vital live than on the album that one hopes there is a live album released from this tour.

The amazing "Gold" was another example of that. It is a fantastic standout track on Smoke + Mirrors, but live it is an entirely different beast, with Reynolds soft ballad intro to the song, before introducing the synth and samples that make it exciting on the record, then watching everyone in the band pounding on floor toms either in between or while they are playing their instruments. This was one of the greatest and most fascinating moments of the evening. "Thief" relaxed the mood a bit in the sense that it's almost a ballad and once more folks had their cell phone/lighter thing going. It's a touching song that's found on the deluxe edition of the new album and a track that probably should have found its way on the album proper.

The crowd went positively nuts when the band launched into "Demons" and I suppose, expectedly so. Once again, the audience sang along to every word, but this was true of very nearly every song throughout the evening, old or new. Still, this was the first song where I noticed that pre-school children were completely losing their minds to this music right along with their teenage siblings and their parents. It was a completely brilliant moment. Reynolds requested that the audience clear their mind "Of everything like work, school, politics, religion and just be present" for the next song. And so with that in mind and a truly cosmic lightshow and backdrop they delivered "Hopeless Opus" which became a truly fantastic scene with Reynolds laying down on the crowd stage while watching Daniel Sermon delivering yet another searing guitar solo to finish it out. It was both amusing and slightly adorable.

The band took a breather except for Sermon, while Reynolds told an inspiring story about how he had been dealing with depression for years and that it was something that needed to be understood, not a sob story, but something that you just need to deal with.

"It can be your greatest strength and drive you every day...this is a song about that idea," he said.

The band then launched into "Release," which is another deluxe edition tune that belongs on their latest album as well, but the all-acoustic realm in which it dwells may have prevented its inclusion. What happened next was yet another unexpected moment as the band had returned and everyone had a floor tom to play for the massive percussion cavalcade that is "On Top Of The World." Band members even started playing different parts of Daniel Platzman's bombastic drum kit for this one. The song, which is one of my favorites, gave me chills, but when Reynolds hopped into the crowd and continued singing, working his way through his fans it took on a whole new dimension. Then he walked up the aisle I was seated in and continued walking, finally going into a row and finishing the song with his fans by his side. On his return I patted him on the shoulder and shouted, "Fantastic!" Because it was, I had never seen anything like it.

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"Friction" is probably the most aggressive song that Imagine Dragons has ever written. It's very nearly a heavy metal track compared to the rest of their canon, and that's just the perception on the record. Live, this thing is a whole other beast that literally shakes ever cell in your body and makes you realize that these guys can truly rock anytime they want to do so. Another surprise was the inevitable single "I Bet My Life" that was delivered with such a vengeance live that it makes the album version of the song seem like a mere shadow of the performance I witnessed Saturday night. It is a much bigger rocker in the realm of the arena and it found Reynolds actually screaming the chorus with a bit of vitriol as the audience sang along with the softer version they know and love. The entire contrast worked perfectly together. The show couldn't be over until they played the chart topping, nine-times platinum, best-selling rock song in U.S. digital history, "Radioactive". And play it they did with Reynolds on the giant bass drum again, everyone on floor tom , bassist Ben McKee rocking out the synth strings and an amazing laser light show to boot. For the first time someone else walked out to the crowd stage, this time it was Sermon, blazing away on his guitar. No matter how many times you've heard it on the radio, seeing it live is a whole new experience.

The band disappeared for the amount of moments that are allowed to relieve the crowd of the people that saw the hit and want to leave and those who want to stay for the obligatory encore. They soon returned after a few hundred folks departed, probably to get to the merch stand before anyone else. They played "The Fall" for the encore, the final track from Smoke + Mirrors, it was a brilliant, eloquent end to a truly entertaining evening of fantastic music, by a band that clearly enjoys what they are doing and a lead singer that despite feeling terrible gave his goddamndest to make sure that the thousands of fans in that arena had a great night no matter what. In the end the ceiling exploded with confetti, glitter and paper leaves as the projection on the mirrors on stage showed the same thing. It was a pretty beautiful moment. In the end, the band came to the crowd stage and bowed together, waving goodbye to all who adored them. The entire performance was a class act, through and through. I wondered when the stars look down on Imagine Dragons what do they see. Probably stars looking back at them.

Critic's Notebook

Last night: Imagine Dragons and Metric at US Airways Center

The crowd: Overall, the crowd was very, very young. All ages were represented, but that's because there were a lot of kids there with their parents. Seriously the age range was five to eighty five and everything in between. The representation of twenty somethings was a little on the light side, which surprised me. It is always great though to see families dancing together

Random notebook dump: Jesus, this crowd is a mixed bag from very small children to octogenarians, but mostly middle aged folks and their teenage children.

Random notebook dump 2: Arena shows are fucking weird these days. Carl's Jr.? Streets of New York Pizza? Full bars and restaurants? I must have missed this stage of evolution.

Random Notebook dump 3: I think this is the most perfectly paced show I have ever seen, every moment, the slow songs are almost a relief to the furious pace of the others, while the rockers keep the energy up—this is designed for aural pleasure.

About The Experience Itself: I haven't been to an arena show in a long while and the experience was quite alien. What I did learn is that the concessions rape found in an arena makes the elevated prices at festivals look like sheer generosity and love. Seriously, $12 for a beer. $6.50 for a bottle of water and $7.50 for a Coke? I thought the cocktails were generous at $9 and then I ordered one and it turns out it was half a shot. I could buy an entire bottle of Dewars for two "shots." I have to buy a double to get a full shot? I couldn't even imagine the food prices. I will never balk at drink prices at a festival again after this experience that's for sure. Aside from that, everything was pretty great, swimming like a salmon upstream at times was certainly uncomfortable, but that was fairly easy to manage. I have to also mention that the arena staff were amazingly warm, wonderful and extremely helpful. I hope they get a cut of that concession markup.

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Talking Stick Resort Arena

201 E. Jefferson St.
Phoenix, AZ 85004

602-379-2000


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