Okay, let me start by getting this out of the way: when I was in high school, Panic! at the Disco was one of my favourite bands. Not my ultimate favourite as that honour belonged to Metric, but certainly up there on the play-count of my brick-sized pink iPod Nano.
I say all this with some hesitation because it inevitably calls into question my credibility as a music writer. Defending an appreciation of a band feels silly, but I guess what people unfamiliar with the group need to be aware of is that, back in 2005 – the prime of the scene-kid era and the peak of my adolescent years – they were an exciting group to be a fan of. I wore the band shirts, bought the fancy box sets, and lurked the LiveJournal communities for all the juicy Panic! at the Disco details. There was a lot to like: their shows were a vaudevillian spectacle, the songs from their A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out debut were catchy and upbeat, and their momentum huge.
My interest in the Las Vegas quartet extended into their second album in fact – a step in a different direction with the very much Beatles-influenced Pretty. Odd. Granted, it didn’t have the same adolescent vigour as its predecessor, but it was enough to get me thinking about music beyond the quote-unquote “scene” and digging through my father’s record collection. So, even if it’s embarrassing to admit that I had a deep-seated love of Panic!, I suppose some thanks are in order for their help in influencing my musical knowledge and, however strange it is to say, getting me involved in music beyond the top-40.
But, as it happens with the majority of bands that are part of the teen-targeted alt-rock genre, I grew up and grew past Panic! They became nestled firmly within my nostalgia category, joining the ranks of the Backstreet Boys. Apart from some Wikipedia reads on the departure of guitarist Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker and a couple of listens to 2011’s Vices & Virtues (done in preparation for an interview with them,) I was fairly removed from their output.
That’s why seeing them at the Sound Academy on a slushy Saturday night was, frankly, a strange moment for me.
Perhaps most surprisingly is the fact that their show – now toned down in the circus-like appeal – doesn’t feel like the work of has-beens. Whether Panic! at the Disco were playing material from their 2005 debut or 2013’s Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!, it all felt very of the moment. Yes – I found it easier to sing along to the older material (muscle memory and all that) – but it was clear that the teenagers crammed into the Sound Academy have done their homework on the band’s 10-year-old catalogue.
Also weird was seeing how strangely unaffected I felt to see what Panic! at the Disco’s turned into. By that I mean – they’re not really the Panic! I grew up with. Ross and Walker left in 2009 and, after posting a letter to fans in 2013 about his struggles with addiction, drummer Spencer Smith hasn’t been touring with the group. Which means really, for me, it was the “Brendon Urie featuring three unknown-entities” edition of Panic! at the Disco.
It worked, much to the credit of Urie. The 26-year-old has clearly been doing this for so long that commanding a stage is a relatively easy task. He bounced around in a shiny gold blazer, tight leather pants, and leopard print shoes, effectively giving fellow Las Vegas frontman Brandon Flowers a run for his money in the on-stage garb competition.
Beyond vocals, Urie was responsible for keys, electronic samples, and also picked up a guitar for the 2009 single “New Perspective” – the first song the band created and released following the departure of Ross and Walker. The band themselves seem very conscious of this departure, and of trying to reshape who they are as a group. As a result, fans of the aforementioned second album, Pretty. Odd., likely felt a bit left out with only one song to sing along to – single “Nine in the Afternoon.” It’s understandable why they stepped away from it with the album not really fitting with the rest of their material, but it still served as a reminder of what once was.
For the most part though, there were enough distractions to keep anyone in the audience from thinking of the split. Urie pulled off a back-flip at one point, grabbing serious bonus points from the audience for that. It also helped that the screaming crowd was so obviously enamoured with him that it didn’t take much to have them belting back every word from opener “Vegas Lights” to the encore-ending breakout hit “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.”
What’s apparent with the newer material is the band’s movement toward electronics and production effects. A precursory listen to their newest album will tell you as much and, while you can read that as auto-tune, it’s clear that Urie has a great voice – his constant wails and upper-register reaches evidence of that. Of all the night’s 20-songs, only one – 2011’s “Ready to Go (Get Me Out of My Mind)” seemed a big wobbly in the vocal department.
Apart from the one slight hitch, Urie has much improved in the time since A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, and with the practice he’s gotten more confident. Throughout the night he’d throw in howls, shrieks, or Michael Jackson-like falsettos to change up the songs. Vices & Virtues’ “Let’s Kill Tonight” benefited from these switch-ups, as did Fever’s “But It’s Better If You Do.”
Outside of Urie, Dallon Weekes (who toured with the band from 2009 onwards, joining in an official capacity in 2012,) was fun to watch and engaged well with the crowd beneath him. The tall, lanky bassist spun around in circles, got people clapping, and held his instrument aloft to goad on the audience. He seems a strong fit for the group and the band’s lucky to have such an able replacement, helping Urie write much of the newest album.
Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! was well-represented throughout the night, Urie at one point introducing “Miss Jackson” as his favourite form it, a backing track from featured American singer Lolo playing alongside the band. “This Is Gospel” was evidence of their embracement of electronics, as was “Casual Affair” (a number on which touring guitarist Kenneth Harris grabbed the spotlight with a well-played solo.) This electronic tilt was most apparent on Urie’s solo take on “The End of All Things,” a ballad that would (for better or for worse) feel right at home on the Twilight soundtrack. In the live setting, there was a near-robotic edge to his vocals but, as the band returned to help him close out the number with the big finale, it melted away and Urie belted out the final part of the song. He didn’t quite hit the Mariah Carey high-notes, but he definitely got close to them, delivering it all with huge emotion. They smartly juxtaposed the ballad with the much more lyrically grimy “Lying is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off,” from their debut, showing progress but also a running thread through their catalogue.
Less great was Urie’s choice of banter and the obvious rigidity of the setlist. A precursory glance at past Too Weird tour setlists showed exactly what you could expect from the night. So yes, there’s a lack of spontaneity there, but as Urie bounded on stage for the encore sans-shirt and the girls started screaming, it’s hard to argue that anyone really cared all that much (because they were primarily just taking photos of him at that point) and new single “Girls/Girls/Boys” had the crowd singing back, arms triumphantly raised. The band does run the risk of just painting by numbers though, and you can tell they’re having some trouble telling one tour date apart from another (see: a tweet sent out from the Panic! account earlier in the day, incorrectly stating the show was in Vancouver. Whoops.)
As far as the banter goes, however, Urie took a misstep in introducing the finale of “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.” He became that guy that just subjects other people to hearing him talk about weed.
Look, I get it. You’re young, you’re a rock star, and you’re having fun – but having not said much to the sold out Toronto audience all night, it’s overkill to spend a good three minutes on the quest to find your lost joint. Also a little strange is talking about it like that – “Oh shit, I found it. I have a real problem. I can’t go more than 90 minutes without smoking weed” – and lighting up on stage when it’s public knowledge that your drummer is dealing with addiction.
It was a strange way to end a show that was strange to go see in the first place, but beyond that it was an impressive showing from the band that won’t say die. I’m not sure how invested I’ll be getting in Panic! at the Disco in the future, but it’s nice to have that nostalgic part of my adolescence looked after by a group capable of still making it all seem shiny and new. I have to commend them for that – and maybe also put their debut on my iPod and try not to sing it out loud in a public place.
Thanks to Live Nation for media access.