Twenty years ago this summer, Michael Jordan helped secure the Chicago Bulls their sixth championship in eight years. Jordan's ascent to the top wasn't an easy one and it took him seven seasons to bring home his first championship. Throughout his entire career, he strived to be the best and pushed himself, his team and the boundaries of the sport to arguably be the greatest basketball player of all-time. What made Jordan such a force to be reckoned with was his ability to adapt and inspire. No matter who his opponent was or how they shifted their defenses to shut him down, he always found a way to flourish. Watching Panic! at the Disco's Brendon Urie, in the arena Jordan called home, you can't help but think about what a champion Urie has become over the last fourteen years. Panic's debut album sold more than two-million copies and won the coveted Video of the Year award in 2006. In 2009, two of the original members of the band left, leaving him and drummer Spencer Smith to carry the torch, which they did. Vices & Virtues and Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! both charted in the top ten and reaffirmed their place on the rock landscape with some help from Butch Walker as a producer on both albums. When Smith left the group in 2015, Brendon Urie took the bold step to not do a solo project but to imprint his personality onto the next album, 2016's Death of a Bachelor, with Jake Sinclair in the producer's chair. 2018 finds the band with their second number one album in a row, Pray for the Wicked, and their strongest top-to-bottom album featuring some of Brandon Urie's most confessional lyrics and tantalizing arrangements where he's melded fury to create a beautiful noise. Nothing about Panic at the Disco's popularity was inevitable and was fueled by Urie continually striving to better himself as an artist. He never wavered in his drive and more than a decade after appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, he's at a creative and commercial high point that shows no signs of faltering any time soon.
Panic! at the Disco rode into Chicago's United Center for a storming show high on musical ecstasy. A ten-minute countdown clock began at 8:50pm revving the audience's anticipation and as the band members ascended from below the stage before Brandon Urie flew through a trap door to a bellow of shrieks as the band tore through "Don't Threaten Me With A Good Time. For the next 115-minutes, those inside Chicago's United Center witnessed a set that was all killer with no filler overflowing with buoyant bombast. On "Hey Look Ma, I Made It" Urie took a moment to inform the crowd about its inspiration; "I wrote this song for my mother" before he and his band delivered a fierce and direct performance followed in quick succession by "LA Devotee" featuring swelling horns and a deafening roar from the audience. On "Hallelujah", the arrangement was soulful with the crowd acting as a choir while "Nine in the Afternoon" featured Urie on piano whose arrangement was accented by a three piece string section. Urie tips his hat continually to a large number of influences; the flair of Freddie Mercury, the evolution of David Bowie, the swagger of Frank Sinatra and the indie spirit of Patty Smith but on "Afternoon" he channels his best Paul McCartney circa Magical Mystery Tour.
While Urie may be the sole creative force on Panic! at the Disco albums, in concert he's surrounded by vivacious and vibrant musicians who lift the music and make it fly. Guitarist Kenneth Harris showcase slashing riffs while drummer Dan Pawlovich is unremitting as his sticks splinter from white-knuckle precision in tandem with bassist Nicole Row who swings, sings, punctuates each song with urgency. "Casual Affair" featured an exquisite three piece string section of Desiree Hazley (violin), Leah Metzler (cello) and Kiara Ana Perico (violin) who evoked a sense of trepidation and offhand edginess in their meticulous performance. One of the show's more memorable moments was during "Death of a Bachelor" which found Urie making his way through the crowd to the back of the floor. He sang the entire song while going eye-to-eye with the fans. Once he reached the back of the arena, a white baby grand piano waited for him that he sat behind and began to perform the Bonnie Raitt cover, "I Can't Make You Love Me". As the song progressed, the piano was raised to the rafters and floated back to the main stage. Urie flexed his vocals showing there's soul and gentleness beneath the glitz of his albums while the Wicked Strings (as dubbed by the fans) provided a moment of tranquility and loveliness as they strings tugged at the audience's emotions. Props must be given to Urie for including a horn and string section on this tour, because what he wants to accomplish could be easily achieved by a keyboard player, but there's greater heart and depth to the music as a result. You can feel the horns and strings embellish these songs, making them more palpable and a bigger and bright force in concert.
Two covers shook the walls of the arena, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" (originally by Cyndi Lauper) and "Bohemian Rhapsody". Inspired by his time on Broadway in the Lauper penned musical Kinky Boots, Urie brought an infectious merriment to the performance while "Rhapsody" featured the core four piece band tackling every note (something Queen doesn't even do) bringing their own musical pyrotechnics to the operatic anthem, eliciting a rapturous response from the crowd that shook the foundation of the building. The Panic! at the Disco fans were raucous and fanatical. The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, KISS, U2 and Metallica have dedicated and ardent fans, but Panic's were on another level. Capturing their fears and imagination, Brandon Urie was rewarded with a wholly engaged crowd who come to the shows for more the hits but for an experience and chance to excise demons, be reminded of the best life has to offer and to watch a man and his unbelievable band tear the stage up like it's the seventh game of a playoff. The impression Urie leaves with the audience is awe-inspiring and superhuman at times whether he's dancing at the forefront of the stage, leading a fan sing-a-long, tackling a drum solo, doing a backflip or flying over the crowd, but beneath it all, it's the struggles in the music that the audience came to share and experience.
As the show drew to a close with a victory lap of an encore featuring "Say Amen (Saturday Night)", "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" and "Victorious", Urie prowled the stage in a Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan jersey, which he earned the right to wear. As "Victorious" came to a close amidst a flurry of confetti and circling lights, Panic! at the Disco left the crowd reeling with a performance that will be entranced into their memory bank for all time. Urie delivered a show that was part rave, part Broadway musical and part stadium rock. It's a show you can anticipate, but not conjure. It's deft and daring barrage of rock n' roll music cranked to 11 that is both a carnival, revival and contemplative concert tapping into the hearts of the audience. Urie is the charismatic hero of the evening, dancing, spinning, twirling, drumming, flying and singing conqueror of hearts, bodies, minds and souls. Balancing bombast, poetry, irony and bliss, Urie croons his way into the hearts of his fans every night and with each new release. Each album feels like a potent new chapter where he tackles new heights. His catalog of music is birthed from pain, suffering and secrets he shares with the world. Laying himself out for all to see, Urie leaves no stone unturned in his art. Like Michael Jordan in the nineties, Urie is pushing himself and surrounding himself with a team to make his dreams and art a reality. Urie has now transcended to a place where it about more than survival but how he has found his muse and a way to thrive creatively on his own. The show, the band and their music is nothing less than victorious and their presence in 2018 was felt everywhere. They ride into 2019 on a high note with more singles and concerts forthcoming.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Best of 2018: Panic! at the Disco Live In Chicago
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