AJR’s “Neotheater” Concert Review: It Gets Better

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My roommate has asked me, very reasonably, to preface this as any good scientist would by stating my biases. The best concert experience of my life came on October 21st, 2017 when I saw Imagine Dragons in Cincinnati. It featured a religious experience, numerous references to biology, and was headlined by the first band to change my life. I have frequently referred to it as the “Mount Everest of my life” and firmly believe that nothing will ever top it. 

So far, that remains true, and when I remove Imagine Dragons from the equation, because they’re an outlier that skews the data, Neotheater starts to stand on its own as an incredible concert experience. Not perfect, but still incredible. In fact, if I had to sum up my thoughts on the show as a whole in one line, it’s this: Neotheater mirrors AJR’s career. 

What does that mean? Well, I’m glad you asked. 

To get started, you need to understand that the main feature of the Neotheater World Stage (besides the band themselves) is a giant video screen on the back of the stage. When I say “giant,” I do not mean some dinky, projector-size screen. At the very least, it’s the size of a small movie theater screen. Four people can play Mario Kart on this screen and see their race more easily than they could playing single-player on a large flatscreen. So, point number one that you need to understand: there is a big screen upstage while the band plays downstage.

Now, if you were AJR, and you had that screen behind you for the entire show, you’d do something cool with it, right? Something that made watching that screen for every second of every minute of the entire show worth it, right? Yes? We’re all in agreement on this? Alas, this is not what happened. 

Credit: Caitlin Spielvogel

Have you ever seen a movie where the effects department blew the budget on all the cool stuff at the end, and forgot that they also needed effects in the beginning, too? I’m not saying that’s straight up Neotheater, but, well…

Again: the show mirrors the band’s career. It’s got a slow start, with the video-wall being used to show Mount Everest and some lightning instead of anything more interactive and interesting. My favorite part was the hard surrealism of revisiting the old windows media player screen saver from my mom’s computer, back when we’d have dance parties in the kitchen in the mid-2000s. Good memories, of course, but I wasn’t sure why it was on this absolute unit of a video screen for the majority of this first act. Surely, something more relevant to the music could have been up there, or maybe it could have been turned off, because it really wasn’t bringing anything of value to the show. 

Credit: Caitlin Spielvogel

So, the beginning of the show was a little bit like Living Room; it wasn’t bad, but we weren’t really given much in terms of what was ultimately coming at the end. The trademark crowd interaction was phenomenal (we were all in stitches, and I saved some great quotes. The Deadpool mask was, in my opinion, an excellent contribution to the show from the audience). 

Much like “The Green and the Town” on Living Room suggests at what’s coming in Neotheater, I will say there were moments in the beginning of the show that foreshadowed the ending in the best possible way. The handling of that was masterful, and I only caught it because the ending had already been spoiled for me. On this, I applaud AJR all around, and it’s perhaps this that makes me most interested in coming back to see their shows in the future. With this foreshadowing, Jack and Ryan Met, who directed the show, prove that not only are they top-tier songwriters, but they also have the potential to become top-tier storytellers. 

As the show went on, it picked up, which again mirrors AJR’s career trajectory with The Click. There are three main moments that tipped the show from good to great in this middle act. “The Entertainment’s Here” was the first suggestion of this promise. It’s well known that AJR is hugely influenced by classic Hollywood and Broadway shows, and “The Entertainment’s Here” delivers on that influence in a huge way as the video screen is finally used as a set piece in the show⁠—a New York street that Jack walks down “Singing in the Rain.” 

This was soon followed by the opening sequence to “Come Hang Out,” which gives Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End a quick nod by borrowing the bass part, as well as featuring multiple Jacks working together to make music on a white screen, much like multiple Jacks join together in Davy Jones’ locker in the film (if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, check out this clip). It was clever, delightful to watch, and absolutely one of the most well thought-out parts of the show. 

The real shift though, from the rough beginning to the mind-blowing end (and one of my favorite parts overall), was the trumpet medley that took the audience through a brief history of AJR. JJ Kirkpatrick certainly brings an extra something special to the band, and watching him “walk” through snippets of AJR’s biggest hits, from Living Room’s “Growing Old On Bleecker Street” to Neotheater’s “Beats,” was wonderful. “I’m Ready” was an unfortunate addition, but luckily it was quickly replaced by everyone’s favorite drinking song, “Bud Like You” from The Click. 

Credit: Caitlin Spielvogel

Following this literal stroll down memory lane, the presence of the video screen finally earns its merit, and was featured in a major way in almost every song⁠—no more random screen-savers while the band played on downstage. Because there were so many good moments in this third act (the Neotheater act, if you will), I won’t go into all of them. Highlights include the in-depth explanation of how they made “Don’t Throw Out My Legos,” especially for the laughs of “so we made this beat…and then we forgot about it.” Traveling back in time to their busking days during “Wow, I’m Not Crazy” was also beautifully done, and almost had me convinced for a minute that we really were in Washington Square Park on a warm summer day. 

I don’t want to spoil the finale (though I will say that if you follow AJR on social media, I can guarantee it’s already been ruined for you). As a Chicagoland native, I was extremely happy to revisit the Museum of Science and Industry’s “Numbers in Nature: Patterns in Your Body” exhibit with them. This, by the way, was the portion that had been foreshadowed throughout the entire show and I loved it very, very much. When I saw a few months ago that they were visiting MSI to gather ideas for the show, I was wondering what would be included, and I’m happy that this made the cut.

Overall, the Neotheater experience is pretty great. Though the start is lackluster, it picks up in the middle and ultimately delivers a mind-blowingly good finale in the end. It was worth my money to see, but it perfectly met expectations without exceeding them. Maybe that’s good, or maybe it’s bad. Either way, however, I’m eagerly awaiting my next opportunity to see AJR, and I honestly can’t wait to see what they’ll do next. 

Concert Photos, credit: Caitlin Spielvogel.

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