Last Night: Fall Out Boy at the Fillmore

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Fall Out Boy, Metro Station and Cobra Starship Tuesday, April 14 Fillmore Auditorium

When I took my daughter Lora to see Fall Out Boy in November 2007, I figured it was only matter of time before her twin sister, Ellie, would demand recompense -- and my unspoken prediction came true last night. Still, plenty has changed during the intervening eighteen months or so for the stars of the show. Back then, FOB performed at a packed Magness Arena, whereas this time, the band topped a bill at the considerably smaller Fillmore -- and while the combo is playing two dates at the arena (the second gig takes place tonight), the first one fell notably short of selling out. For much of the evening, half the space on the main floor was empty or close to it, suggesting that the Boys are following the typical trajectory of acts whose popularity is based on youthful fans with the unfortunate tendency to grow up. And yet, the outfit is actually improving as a live act even as its appeal seems to be on the wane.

Thanks to an unfortunately timed basketball practice, we arrived at the Fillmore around 7:40 p.m., after the first two of the five combos on the agenda had already performed -- and to Ellie's chagrin, All Time Low, a current fave, was one of them. True, ATL's Alex Gaskarth made a couple of cameos later in the evening, and Hey Monday's Cassadee Pope popped up, too, in keeping with the Fall Out Boy strategy of treating musicians in opening acts as pals rather than underlings. Still, the scheduling proved to be an unpleasant surprise. Just as unexpected, Cobra Starship filled the middle slot, even though the group has been around longer, and generated more hits, than Metro Station, which appeared afterward.

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Not that Starship frontman Gabe Saporta seemed put off by this placement. He was just as irrepressible as during last June's Warped Tour, when Saporta and company turned out to be among the traveling circus' unexpected highlights. Their sound mix was actually worse than at Warped -- a real achievement -- and the set was about the same length: in the half-hour range. Nonetheless, Saporta made time for wittily canned banter with sidekick/previous Westword Q&A subject Ryland Blackinton, as well as Jazzercise-friendly performances of danceable ditties such as "The City Is at War," "Bring It (Snakes on a Plane)" and "Smile for the Paparazzi," during which the Cobras reveled in their cheesiness rather than attempting to cover it up -- a good strategy. Another smart move: Saporta not only namechecked local heroes 3Oh!3, whose members he'd met on the Warped Tour, but flashed the duo's trademark sign before dedicating "Kiss My Sass" to them. Result: instant endearment.

If only the same could have been said about Metro Station, co-fronted by Trace Cyrus, older brother of Miley. About midway through the Hollywood, California band's thirty minutes or so of stage time, I leaned over to Ellie and said, "These guys blow" -- and she responded with an energetic head nod and the sort of shocked expression usually triggered by farts in elevators.

Cyrus, a towering string bean with shoulder-length hair and plenty o' upper-torso tattoos that were even more visible after he peeled off his shirt, didn't overtly go after the Disney Channel demographic. Instead, he affected bad-ass swagger, dropping F-bombs at regular intervals and spraying mouthfuls of water on the crowd. But his tough-guy posturing was undermined by the difficulty he had breathing at high altitude (on several occasions, he was panting so heavily that I had to resist the urge to dial 911), not to mention the wimpiness of tunes such as "Wish We Were Older" and "Seventeen Forever." Another bad sound mix was a factor in their lameness, but more significant was groove-free playing and embarrassing vocalizing. Cyrus can at least project, but the louder he sang, the fewer notes he hit. As for fellow warbler Mason Musso, he didn't even try to belt, mewling so ineffectually that even "Shake It," the Station's best-known track, failed to motivate the asses of anyone other than the most rabid fans. Whose judgment must be questioned in a major way on every subject from now on.

The FOBs couldn't help but seem like a major improvement after that dismal display, and they were. Indeed, "Disloyal Order of Water Buffaloes," from the band's latest album, December's Folie à Deux, hit harder and faster than anticipated, with the Boys displaying a tightness and focus (aided by the sort of excellent sound mix headliners expect to receive) that they seldom exhibited during their 2007 Magness stop. Lead singer Patrick Stump showed improvement, too, actually enunciating some of lyricist/bassist Pete Wentz's wordy lines, as opposed to making them sound like an unintelligible string of random syllables. Clearly, years spent playing in larger venues has had a positive impact on these guys. By now, they're experienced, and it shows.

Nonetheless, the first segment of their presentation clearly baffled a hefty percentage of the attendees. Wentz, Stump, guitarist Joe Trohman and drummer Andy Hurley were preceded by a video montage, projected on cleverly designed rectangular screens arrayed alongside their instruments, that intercut scenes of violence with footage of the Boys clad in business suits identical to the ones they wore upon hitting the stage alongside a pair of dudes clad in riot gear labeled "Chicago" (their hometown). The silvery Newt Gingrich wig worn by Stump suggested that they players were in character -- an assumption confirmed when Wentz took to the microphone and launched into a Tony Robbins-like rap about an "MVP" seminar that would discuss topics like power and luxury. Later, he asked a stagehand for a glass of water, took one sip, smashed it to the floor and then callously tossed a greenback as he cleaned up the mess. He also declared that anyone who says a book is better than a movie on which it's based is stupid, because watching a movie is a lot less time consuming.

These bits generated a collective "Whuh?," with the youngest ticket-buyers, in particular, apparently uncertain whether Wentz was being serious or not. Their bafflement didn't ease until after a costume change, when Wentz, clad in more commonplace rock-star garb, delivered an anti-greed diatribe against evil corporate types of the sort he had portrayed earlier.

This political angle represented an attempt by Wentz to present more topical ideas than he's trafficked in to date. Presumably, he doesn't want to be stuck churning out teen-relationship fodder for the rest of his days and would like to be allowed the opportunity to mature as an artist even as his loyalists do likewise. Makes sense given his status as a married man (to Ashlee Simpson) and a new father -- a status he joked about at one point while referencing a "swear jar" intended to make him clean up his language. Yet the closest thing to a crowd-thrilling political comment came amid a mini-address about the three things that will make 2009 an incredible year:

1. George W. Bush -- aka "The Cowboy" -- is finally out of the White House.

2. Blink-182 has reunited.

3: Michael Jackson is launching a world tour -- an announcement that precipitated an ultra-faithful, irony-free cover of "Beat It."

Of course, Fall Out Boy has more than enough hits of its own to fill a concert, and they didn't skimp: "Sugar, We're Going Down," "This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race," "I Don't Care," "Dance, Dance" and "America's Suitehearts" all were featured. But lesser-known offerings such as "She's My Winona" and "What a Catch, Donnie," both from Folie à Deux, worked almost as well. Sure, a lot of this material falls short of timelessness, but the Boys played it so crisply that they actually earned their fans' enthusiasm, as opposed to simply taking advantage of it.

Hard to say whether this newfound aptitude will make a difference in the long run. Fall Out Boy is fighting historical inevitability these days, and if they maintain or increase their following in the next several years, as opposed to spiraling into pop-cultural oblivion, they'll have to beat the odds to do so. Still, Wentz seems determined to try, and while he's not above contradictions -- at show's end, he wore a T-shirt that declared him to be "Young and Rich," thereby undermining his anti-greed screed from an hour or so earlier -- he and his group can no longer be dismissed as video phenomenons. They weren't amazing live, but neither were they an embarrassment -- and that counts as progress whether as many people are paying attention these days or not.

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