From their first performances, it seems to have been love at first song between Milwaukee and the top 40 rockers Imagine Dragons.
As frontman Dan Reynolds told the packed BMO Harris Bradley Center crowd during Saturday night’s gig, around five years ago, the Cream City was one of the first to play the Las Vegas-based band’s songs on the radio. The appreciation wasn’t just limited to the radio dial, however. In 2013, the band dropped by for two shows – one sold out gig at The Rave that left Reynolds and his bandmates noticeably emotional at the immense and enthusiastic turnout, and another at Summerfest a few months later so packed that it pretty much broke the Big Gig.
Two years, a new album and the realization that the band might be comprised of alternate universe Macklemores later, no love seems to have been lost between Imagine Dragons and its loyal Milwaukee following. At least, that certainly seems to be the case judging from the massive, eager crowd of fans at Saturday night’s show and the vigorously grand musical bombast the band treated them to for 90 minutes.
Fittingly for the "Smoke + Mirrors" tour, there was plenty of both on display Saturday night. The band opened the show behind a massive white curtain with flickering embers and billowing smoke flumes projected on it. Shadowy figures eventually formed out of the smoky ether, and after sufficiently riling the crowd into a fury, the monolithic curtain eventually dropped, revealing the stage – framed by about six tall, thin mirror-esque screens stretching to the back of the surprisingly deep set – and the band rocking out their opener, "Shots."
Going in as an admittedly tepid fan of Imagine Dragons, the band’s first moments quickly put many of my reservations aside. The band performs with contagious enthusiasm; guitarist Wayne "Wing" Sermon and bassist Ben McKee often met up mid-stage to rock out together and sing along with no mics around, and Reynolds sells the songs with plenty of chest pounds, fist pumps and treks out onto the stage’s extension into the crowd – and then further (for "On Top Of The World," he ventured so deep into the crowd, I was convinced we may not see him again). Throughout the show, he’d also often fall to the ground, as though emotionally and physically exhausted. He made a fine musical preacher, leading his enthralled congregation in song.
And about those songs. The tunes were on point all evening, starting with the soul-rocking "Shots" and moving into the rollicking bombast of "Trouble" (aided by the occasional dramatically timed blackout). Imagine Dragons then reached the first hit of the evening, "It’s Time," starting it off with a slow, methodical crowd sing-along before launching into the full-power boom-clapping anthem that made it a hit.
The band tends to be at its most involving and entertaining when it ditches any sign of slow-down and commits to its place in the world of top 40 rock as an addictively loud, thumping music machine. The following three songs – a dabble into a "Forever Young" cover leading into "Smoke And Mirrors" and the whoa-happy chorus of "Polaroid" – were a touch of lull. They’re neither bad songs, not performed poorly; "Smoke And Mirrors," for instance, has some nice vocal harmonies and ends with a solid guitar solo from Sermon. They’re just a little anonymous – like their album name, an illusion of depth. They’re at their best when they rock out and treat the audience like a one of their poor, poor drums, pummeling and pounding over them with big bombastic beats and overwhelming soaring choruses until, really, resistance is futile.
Consider me one of those who eventually gave into Imagine Dragons’s furiously crashing sonic wave. The rockers erupted out of the little dead spot with "I’m So Sorry," a borderline headbanger led by Sermon’s crunchy, throttling guitar, and "Gold," another banger that featured the band’s signature move of beating the ever-loving life out of some drums. There would be plenty more of that to come, and every time, it tickled the part of the brain that loves beating on pots and pans as a kid and never really left as you grew up.
Reynolds and company kept that energy up through "Bleeding Out," yet another hit with "Demons" and "Hopeless Opus," which ended with yet another fierce guitar solo from Sermon that left the lead singer face down on the stage’s bridge. Sermon then smilingly left his guitar delicately on top of Reynolds as almost some kind of ceremonial goofy tribute. Reynolds’s respite was short-lived, however, as it was off to the Caribbean-infused "On Top Of The World" and off into the crowd.
On the way back to the stage, Reynolds filled the time with little hellos to the audience members reaching out and checking in on one fan who he might have accidentally hit on the way up into the permanent Bradley Center seats. What could’ve been dead air was actually playful, earnest and easy-going – something Reynolds maintains throughout the show. Before starting up "Polaroid," for instance, he amusingly led a sing-along with the crowd into a falsetto and got everyone to raise their arms in the air … just for the sake of stretching out. Later, during some pre-"Gold" band member intros, he apologized that, sorry ladies, McKee already had a girlfriend. When some scattered boos rang their disapproval, he laughingly noted she was in the house so maybe, uh, don’t do that.
The big thing, however, might be how appreciative Reynolds and company seem. Of course, there’s the usual "thanks for having us/supporting us" rigmarole, but the lead singer seems sincere when noting, "I don’t think I’ll ever get over playing in arenas like this," and calling Milwaukee, "one of the greatest crowds to play in front of." There was an odd aside about how he didn’t like the impersonal concert cliché of acknowledging the local sports team … only to make an equally vague and impersonal shout-out to river kayaking and an unnamed restaurant with good service. Even so, he and the rest of Imagine Dragons seemed genuinely emotionally overtaken by the response.
The show came to a close with another headbanger "Working Man" – complete with a nifty red laser wall, and lasers will never not be cool – the addictive loud thumping machine that is "I Bet My Life" and "Radioactive," which got the crowd in a tizzy with a climax featuring the whole band participating in some vigorous drum battery and going through about a giant sequoia’s worth of drum sticks.
It was a roaring finale … except it wasn’t. Instead, Imagine Dragons closed out with the more low-key "The Fall," topped off with a rather beautiful shower of confetti leaves. A few fans in my vicinity could be heard harrumphing about the lack of an encore, but I took "Radioactive" as the closer and "The Fall" as an encore we kindly didn’t have to work for. I like it; love means never having to stand for 10 minutes, slapping your hands together in the hopes of your beloved band granting you its presence again.
And love (and a thick layer of smoke machine mist) was certainly in the air – from the band to the crowd and vice versa. I may not have walked out a complete convert, but I could clearly see what the two parties saw and appreciated in one another. And the honeymoon seems far from over.
Halsey and Metric opened up the show, an odd one-two punch since the two bands are very similar: two relatives of Paramore, with Halsey's punky slink evolving ever so slightly into Metric lead singer Emily Haines's simillarly punkey prance and bounce. Both performed ably, but neither did much to get the crowd particularly moving. However, Haines at one point put on a thin purple cape and performed in front of a wind machine. So there was that.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.