Panic at the Disco, Motion City Soundtrack, The Hush Sound and Phantom Planet June 3, 2008 Fillmore Auditorium
Trend-hopping highfalutins who place equal value on their hipster credibility and their genitalia likely view Panic at the Disco with contempt bordering on the pathological, and that makes perfect sense. The band is a protégé of Fall Out Boy – something less than a sterling pedigree from a critical perspective – and its greatest career achievement to date was winning the top prize at the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards for “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” a clip that looks like a thesis project from the Duran Duran School of Makeup, Costume and Clown Deployment. But sorry, tight-asses: On their latest disc, Pretty. Odd., the Panic boys partake in something that smells a lot like (what the hell?) artistic development, and their efforts paid off at the Fillmore with a thoroughly engaging and entertaining show.
From the outset, the commercialism of the enterprise was never in doubt. The Panic tour is sponsored by Honda Civic, whose advertisements and eco-friendly contest announcements, which essentially served the same function, flashed and blared at the packed house every second a band wasn’t onstage. Indeed, when the lights went down prior to Panic’s appearance, the spots played one more time, like the sort of pre-movie infotainment packages that a lot of us arrive late to theaters in order to avoid.
Fortunately, Phantom Planet, the first act out of the gate, proved to be considerably more diverting than anticipated. As with the headliners, its legacy leaves something to be desired; the band’s known, if it’s known at all, for once having employed actor Jason Schwartzman, of Rushmore fame, as a drummer, and for penning and performing “California,” the hyper-dramatic, damnably catchy tune better known as the theme from The O.C. Yet frontman Alex Greenwald commanded the stage with notable aplomb (except when he fell off it, which he did once accidentally before plunging into the throng on purpose). Moreover, material like “Dropped,” from the recently released platter Raise the Dead, delivered power-pop fizz that kept the crowd on the floor roiling and churning.
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Greenwald and company got some assistance at times, with Panic guitarist Ryan Ross joining in on the appropriately titled “Do the Panic” and the members of The Hush Sound contributing to the highly percussive “Big Brat.” Too bad the latter combo didn’t make a more memorable impression once they launched into their own set. Vest-clad co-leader Bob Morris gave off a distinctly Peter Brady vibe as he bopped along with tunes such as “Honey” and “Medicine Man,” from the just-released Goodbye Blues disc, leaving yours truly wishing that a more interesting family member stood in his place. (Greg? Marcia? Alice?) His cohort, Greta Salpeter, seemed even less compelling, her surprisingly formal vocals proving too airy to effectively slice through the music, at least on this evening. Too much hush, not enough sound.
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As for Motion City Soundtrack, the group proved a bit more interesting than during its appearance at the Big Gig last summer (read that review here), but only just. Lead singer Justin Pierre seems like the nicest guy in the world – at one point, he struggled to turn a necklace into a bracelet so he wouldn’t disappoint the person who’d tossed it to him – and the outfit’s music is perfectly pleasant. Problem is, they’re not exactly a rock powerhouse, a fact that was emphasized to their detriment when they entered to the squeals of Van Halen’s “Eruption” only to launch into a rather lukewarm take of “My Favorite Accident.” In fact, the wimpier the rendition, the better Pierre’s piercing tenor worked: Witness “Let’s Get Fucked Up and Die,” which, despite its title, was treated in a fairly laid-back, laconic fashion. Sure, the crowd responded appreciatively enough to the MCS material – particularly “Attractive Today,” “Everything Is Alright” and “Make Out Kids,” from its best-known recording, 2005’s Commit This to Memory. Still, the gig confirmed that Motion City Soundtrack is the quintessential second-tier band – one that people enjoy moderately as long as it’s warming up for someone better.
Which, strangely enough, Panic at the Disco proved to be. The aforementioned Pretty. Odd., the quartet’s second CD, is similar in some ways to My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade. They’re both albums that look to the classic-rock-LP era in an attempt to grow beyond previous parameters, and while My Chem’s effort is the superior of the two, the Panic offering displays a level of musical ambition few would have predicted for the group, modest though it might be in the overall scheme of things. In short, the players are trying – and yet one of the best aspects of their Fillmore appearance was its relaxed nature and total lack of strain. The stage was bedecked with flowers and the video screen behind the musicians overflowed with bucolic neo-hippie imagery, in keeping with Pretty’s Summer of Love tone, but lead singer/guitarist Brendon Urie, guitarist Ross, bassist Jon Walker and drummer Spencer Smith (supplemented by guest keyboardist Eric Ronick) wore simple, non-psychedelic shirts and pants, not Sergeant Pepper’s duds or the theatrical garb of tours past. Even more appealingly, they seemed eminently comfortable in their own skin, with Urie, Ross and Walker trading between-song banter that had the feel of scripted banter at awards shows delivered with warm but unmistakable irony.
Likewise, the ditties themselves were presented with straight-forward confidence, as if the Disco crew had not the slightest doubt that their fans would embrace even the new stuff with little in common with their previous releases. “We’re So Starving,” the self-reflective (and subtly self-mocking) opener, was followed immediately by “Nine in the Afternoon,” as it is on the latest disc, and the players subsequently rolled out a generous sampling of other fresh material as the concert unfolded: “She’s a Handsome Woman,” “That Green Gentleman,” “Behind the Sea” and even “Folkin’ Around,” delivered as a chipper strumathon. Better yet, their growing maturity improved older material – even the forced whimsy of “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage,” from the timeless Snakes on a Plane soundtrack album, which was also boosted by audience participation stunts that included (predictably) finger snapping and (more unexpectedly) jazz hands.
Not everything could be saved. Urie’s solo acoustic version of “Time to Dance” was energetic but doomed, since the presentation only directed more focus on the absurdly overwritten lyrics. In addition, the Beatles nods – like Ross warming up with a snippet from “Michelle” and the way the concert-ending “Mad As Rabbits” transformed itself into “Hey Jude” – seemed a bit too on-the-nose. But that’s quibbling. Coming into the evening, Panic at the Disco inspired relatively low expectations, but the foursome exceeded them with ease. They’re developing into a good band whether or not tastemakers ever acknowledge it. – Michael Roberts