Over the past three decades, I’ve called many a band my favorites, but of course over time, preferences change and so have I. For me, the ones that “stick” are those that tend to have qualities I can’t find elsewhere: a voice so unique I recognize it even a new song, a melody I can’t get out of my head, or lyrics that make me feel like I’ve been spied on… No matter what, though, the favorite bands I come back to again and again always share one quality in particular: they sound even better live than they do on their albums. Seriously: imagine that seeing concerts regularly is what you do, and after the zillionth time of getting amped up to see a band you’ve been into, you discover they’re less than stellar live. Trust me, it sucks, and it definitely always sours my love for not-so-amazing-live bands. (At least a little.) So after a year and a half spent devouring every single Imagine Dragons song I can get my ears on (and a little preview at a festival last summer), I was beyond ready to see if these Dragons had what it takes to launch a long-term love affair with me. I don’t subject myself to standing-room-only general admission floor tickets for just any act (I may be getting too old for all of that), but there I was on Thursday night, about six rows back from the stage at SAP Center, waiting for the lights to go down.
A few minutes before 7pm, all went dark and the first of two openers took the stage: X Ambassadors. Not only were they new to me, but I wasn’t expecting them. I knew The Naked and Famous were opening, but not that there was a whole other band before they even came out. Honestly, I frequently dread opening acts. X Ambassadors, however, kept me entertained. Frontman Sam Harris has that “x factor” that’s so difficult to describe; he has a great voice and a stage presence to match, and the band’s whole set kept me entertained. They began with “Down with Me,” followed by “Free & Lonely” with a little help from the crowd and a saxophone solo from Harris. Watching Harris’ brother Casey on keys, I noticed that he moved in a way that reminded me of Stevie Wonder; when their set was over my hunch was confirmed: his white cane indicated some level of visual impairment, which only made his musical talents all the more fascinating. After the title track from the band’s most recent EP, Love Songs Drug Songs (my favorite of their set), Harris proclaimed that the next song was “about feeling bigger than you ever thought you could feel,” saying, “that’s how we feel tonight, thank you guys!” The song was called “Giants,” and while I liked its sound, I had a hard time shaking the feeling that it was ripping off David Bowie’s “‘Heroes'” in some way. (“We could be giants” vs. “we could be heroes” may be the only reason I say this, but I heard someone near me say the same thing just as I was thinking it, so I’m not alone.)
After another quick sax break, Harris stopped to introduce the members of the band and then returned to the setlist, saying they had two more. “Unconsolable” came next, and I ignored my word nerd instincts to shout, “that’s not a word!” Harris asked for another round of applause for his brother and then announced that the band would be hanging out after the show at the merch table. “Come say hi. I’m serious, I’d love to meet every one of you motherfuckers. Let’s do this thing!” Their last song, he said, was “about givin’ up and movin’ on,” and about “never saying goodbye,” even though they were “saying goodbye right now.” The song, “The Business,” had a cool sound, but I found it odd to be listening to a song so obviously about quitting “the business” from a band who were clearly still in it. At the end of the song, Harris knelt on the front of the stage, obviously excited by the crowd’s positive response. He shook his head humbly, gave an “ok” sign, and thanked the audience as the guitarist took a photo of the cheering floor. Overall, I really enjoyed being introduced to X Ambassadors. They have a good sound and were fun to watch; I’ll be curious to see what becomes of them.
At 7:45, it was time for The Naked and Famous. Unlike X Ambassadors, this was a band I’d heard of. I knew one song before they began, and that was about it. They started with “A Stillness,” which was full of seizure-inducing strobe lights. (And so, it turned out, was a lot of their set.) Next came “Punching in a Dream,” which brought cheers of recognition from several fans near me on the floor. “Thank you very much!” Singer Alisa Xayalith shouted in a sweet little voice. She is adorable, and reminded me of an anime character. (Which I mean as a compliment, to be clear.) The band’s other singer, Thom Powers, took lead on the next song, “Girls Like You,” with disappointing, faintly whiny vocals in the beginning that got stronger as he got to the mid-point of the song. He definitely sounded better when he was belting. At any rate, he’s a good looking guy, and when he took off his shirt to reveal a sleeveless shirt and great arms, girls all around me screamed at the sight of him. “Rolling Waves” was next, which Powers and Xayalith sang together, which is how they sound best.
After “All of This,” Xayalith asked the crowd if we were “feeling all warmed up” for Imagine Dragons before beginning “I Kill Giants” and then “Hearts Like Ours.” During “No Way” I finally put my finger on what struck me as strange about this band: somehow, there’s something that feels distinctly “churchy” about them, as though they’re a worship band at one of the “cool” churches. I nearly expected them to pray at the end of their set before introducing a pastor, though I genuinely can’t say exactly what it was that made me feel that way. “Young Blood” was next, and one that the crowd recognized and really got into. “San Jose! If you guys know the words, sing ’em with me one last time,” Xayalith said before the song’s final chorus. After they indulged her request, she said “from the bottom of our hearts, thank you very, very much” as they left, waving their goodbyes.
I got antsy waiting for the main event. Finally, just after 9pm, the stage had been reset and the arena returned to darkness. On the stage, a circular screen lit up with the image of a moon slowly rising. When it was full, the band took their places, beginning their set with “Fallen.” Next came “Tiptoe,” during which frontman Dan Reynolds asked the crowd, “you guys wanna sing with me?” Of course, they did, so he taught the words to anyone who didn’t already know them. “San Jose!” Reynolds shouted after the song had ended. As they screamed back in obvious adoration, I was struck for the first time of many at the man’s apparent humility. He watched the crowd, clearly delighted, laughing at their love for him. As he reached down to touch some fans, he remarked, “This is incredible! Thank you so much for being here!” Next came “Hear Me,” which was the first really percussive moment in their set, a hallmark of the Imagine Dragons sound. Throughout the course of their show, there were several points where nearly everybody was banging the shit out of something, and the effect is fantastic – I can’t ever seem to get enough of it. This song was also the first time I noticed guitarist Wayne “Wing” Sermon’s killer gold guitar (below).
“How you guys feel tonight? You guys doin’ ok?” Reynolds asked, and again the screamed response was intense. Pausing to check in with fans in multiple sections of the crowd, Reynolds assured them all, “I see you! Thank you so much for being here tonight!” Up next was my personal favorite, “It’s Time,” which the crowd started before the band joined in; the volume of the unified crowd voice didn’t falter once throughout the entire song. The result was phenomenal, and it was a moment I was happy to witness and catalog in my memory for years to come. Because I know Reynolds is a happily married man, I will do my best not to disrespect him or his family and simply say once that he is a sexy man, and the way he moves his body is a sight to behold. I don’t know how else to put it, and yes… I should move on. “You guys are an incredible crowd,” he gushed. “Thank you so much!” Next was “Who We Are,” which began with a different kind of percussion: a crowd clap. It resumed when Reynolds took to drumming along on a bongo; “Rocks” came next and all I can say about it is what I typed in my notes: delirious delicious percussion insanity. From somewhere near the front of the stage, Sermon threw a tambourine all the way across the stage to where it was caught perfectly by another member of the band. (I think it was touring keys player Ryan Walker, but I can’t say for sure.)
Before the next song, Reynolds went from bandmate to bandmate, whispering in their ears like a middle-schooler. “We have a few special surprises for you tonight,” he explained to the crowd. “We’ve been a band for five years, but I can look out in the crowd and see a couple familiar faces!” He mentioned that their next song was “an old, old song” that was “still one of our favorites,” adding that they hadn’t played it in a while and that it was “gonna be special.” He dedicated it to “all the fans who’ve been with us, and to those just joining us. We love you!” The song was “The River,” and it was indeed a treat to hear live. “I wish you could all be up here and see what it looks like to see all those lights. Incredible,” Reynolds gushed in appreciation for the screaming fans. After an extended guitar intro from Sermon, the band began “Amsterdam,” followed by another long instrumental intro into crowd favorite “Cha-Ching.” Another moment full of drums, the song featured Reynolds banging a bass drum on his knees, after which he ran out to one wing of the stage, as close to the crowd as he could get, playing another drum placed there for him.
“Do we have any classic rock fans in the audience tonight?” Reynolds asked, explaining that he and the members of the band grew up listening to their dads’ music. They wanted to cover something, he said, and it felt right. “If you know this song and can hit the high notes with me, I’ll be impressed. If you don’t know this song, go home, download it, and listen to it on repeat.” The song was Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” and was a great moment. When they’d finished it, Reynolds asked the crowd if they all knew it. “Color me impressed!” He said when it was apparent that a majority had recognized the song. “Who says ‘color me impressed?!’ That’s maybe the first time I’ve ever said ‘color me’ something… It’s because of you. You make me nervous.” (The feeling is mutual, handsome.) Up next was the fantastic “Monster,” featuring what I can only describe as kaleidoscopic Rorschach images. Anyway, it was rad to watch the screen, whenever I was successful in tearing my eyes away from the band’s dynamic frontman for a minute or two. Reynolds let the audience finish the song, smiling and shaking his head. “You guys are so cool.”
Another stellar, insane drum intro began “On Top of the World,” during which Reynolds requested, “on the count of three, everybody on the floor jump!” and jump we did. While the arena seemed to positively vibrate with the electric energy of an amazing band and the fans that love them, several giant balloons full of confetti descended on the floor. We batted them around to each other and the band for most of the song, and of course eventually they popped, showering us in tiny, colorful pieces of paper. “You guys are crazy. We’ve got a couple more songs for you tonight, if that’s ok,” Reynolds promised. Naturally, no one took issue at the suggestion of more music to come. “Demons” was next, and the crowd again sang along with every word. “Wow,” Reynolds said, shaking his head for what seemed like the hundredth time that night. “You guys have been so wonderful, thank you so much. I don’t know what to say… Thank you so much. We have one more song for you tonight. We love you, California!”
While the band began banging on every drum in the building, the audience recognized “Radioactive” right away, beginning the first verse while Reynolds was still drumming with the band, far from his microphone. After the drum intro, though, the unfazed vocalist began the song on his own; the crowd was more than happy to sing the verse again with him. There was another drum breakdown mid-song, and Sermon played a wicked solo to finish it off. They waved, leaving the stage, and the house lights came up tentatively for a moment. When they went back down, the arena grew restless, chanting “encore, encore, encore” and “one more song, one more song…” While I knew that encores generally are planned in advance rather than spontaneously performed due to overwhelming demand of the fans, the requests were still endearing. Having said that, a note for future concert-goers everywhere: if the house lights don’t come on (and stay on), the show isn’t over. And it’s probably not just because you yelled for an encore. I’m just sayin’…
When the Dragons returned to the stage, they were all positively beaming. I saw at least two of them making hearts and “I love you” signs with their hands; it’s obvious that the love the fans feel for them is completely mutual. (It especially matters to me because, as is the case with Imagine Dragons, I’m one of the fans that loves them so much.) “Thank you so much!” Reynolds said again. “This has been one of our favorite nights in quite a while. We have one more song for you.” After a quick explanation of how the band has grown from playing clubs to bigger clubs to theatres and now arenas over the past five years, Reynolds said he hoped it had “felt like a small, intimate show.” He took a moment to give shouts out to those sitting in the obstructed-view seats, asking, “was it ok? Hope you had a good time!” The last song of the evening was “Nothing Left to Say,” and at its close, Reynolds shouted simply, “California!” With that, he blew a kiss to the audience and waved, again shaking his head. As he just surveyed the crowd, soaking up every minute of it, I did the same from where I stood, appreciating his humility and genuine gratitude for the fans. For me, that reciprocity is important, and means the world to me. After one last all-out drum fest, the rest of the band joined him at the front of the stage for a final bow.
As I left the arena, ears ringing, heart happy, I overheard someone telling a friend that he thought the show was fantastic, but that he thought they should have switched the order of the last two songs, closing with “Radioactive” instead. While I wholeheartedly agreed with him on the glorious show, and understood why “Radioactive” would have been a great song to end with, I could still appreciate how poetic it is to finish with “Nothing Left to Say.” Either way, though, this show solidified Imagine Dragons’ position as my favorite band, and I really believe I’ll be able to say that for a great many years to come. I can’t wait to hear new music from them, and to see them again and again.