Drummer jokes are legion, but when you have great percussion, it is amazing how much better a band sounds in a live setting.
The Utah-born pop-rock band Imagine Dragons understands that concept completely.
That can help explain why frontman Dan Reynolds spent most of the night Friday banging on two large bass drums and a snare to accompany drummer Dan Platzman in a star-making, homecoming show at The Complex that already shows that the 2,800-capacity venue is too small for a band this good and appealing.
Make no mistake. Imagine Dragons has arena-sized ambitions and arena-sized anthems, and they delivered smashingly.
"There wouldn't be an Imagine Dragons if it wasn't for the support of Utah from the very beginning," Reynolds told the crowd early on in the sold-out, 90-minute show.
The stage was spartan, with a few abstract trees with thin branches that reached out to the heavens, so all eyes in the audience focused on the charismatic Reynolds and the man-sized bass drum that seemed as if it had walked away from the NCAA tournament a quarter-mile away to spend the night with someone who appreciated the power it contained. Reynolds, whose strong tenor is becoming increasingly more flexible as his range heightens, frequently held one hand on the mic and the other with a drumstick, matching the intensity and grand sound of the band's major-label debut "Night Visons," released last September.
From the opening thrust of "Round and Round," "Amsterdam" and "Tip Toe," the quartet (with a touring multi-instumentalist who manned the keys, guitar and mandolin) showed that despite the hip hop-influenced production that dominated "Night Visions," it was a tight-sounding band that didn't need studio trickery to sound big. It helps that Platzman, guitarist Wayne Sermon and bass player Ben McKee are all Berklee School of Music-educated, so when McKee played a bass solo, for example, it didn't sound forced or indulgent. It was musical. Imagine that. A solo that is musical.
While the rest of the band harmonizes with Reynolds superbly, lead vocals were shared by Reynolds and the adoring audience. With the vast majority of the set devoted to "Night Visions," the crowd sang along exuberantly and loudly; during "Demons," near the end of the set, the crowd dwarfed the singing of Reynolds.
Early on, the band showed that is wasn't especially dynamic, with every song boasting a huge chorus that bludgeons you over the head, as if it was an assault weapon in a knife fight. (That isn't necessarily a criticism.) But the most powerful moments of the night came two-thirds through the set, when the band played an epic version of its latest single "Radioactive" that any other band would have finished the evening with, with strobes flashing and a beautiful cacophony of sound crashing into the crowd. That was immediately followed by Reynolds backed only by Sermon on guitar in a song dedicated to their late Utah friend Tyler Robinson, a young fan of the band who was diagnosed with a rare and fast-growing cancer and died recently. The song, known alternately as "Starlight" and "Thirty Lives," began with Reynolds openly weeping and unable to begin the song, until the crowd started chanting "Tyler" over and over again. It wasn't until then that I was convinced that they, too, understood dynamics.
Highlights of the night were many, and I appreciated that an actual mandolin (and not a recording) was used for the penultimate song of the night, "It's Time," the biggest song to feature a mandolin since R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion."
The encore was "Nothing Left to Say," and early on, I thought the song was an odd way to end a fantastic evening of music. But again, I was surprised and my expectations were upended. Let's just say they turned an otherwise-average song on the album into a finale that showed that even in a crowded, cavernous space, Reynolds, pogoing up and down, and tugging on his shirt, was able to connect with the crowd.
And yes, there was nothing left to say, as Reynolds banged away on a drum.