Brother band AJR was supposed to play the 5,000 seat BMO Harris Pavilion for a 2020 summer tour.
Obviously, that didn’t happen.
Two years later, Adam, Jack and Ryan Met finally returned to Milwaukee — except the show sold out so well it was soon moved to the American Family Insurance Amphitheater, where AJR performed in front of around 11,000 people on Saturday.
Released their two biggest singles during the pandemic – Top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hit “Bang!” and “Way Less Sad”, both off last year’s “OK Orchestra” album – certainly helped sell tickets. But AJR has also developed a passionate fanbase by responding to life’s anxieties with explosive Broadway-inspired pop music and playful performances.
Saturday’s set didn’t just see AJR perform at a higher level. They put together one of the most imaginative and impressive stage productions to hit Milwaukee in recent memory. (Creative director Mitchell Schellenger, who has worked with Imagine Dragons, J. Balvin and others, deserves special mention.)
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The brothers (plus touring drummer Chris Berry and touring trumpeter and keyboardist Arnetta Johnson) were practically special effects themselves, exploding with energy from the first song “Bummerland” (a spinning and jumping Jack Met in particular) , and never letting the energy hang around, even for a sped up acoustic jam for “World’s Smallest Violin,” with Berry channeling Violent Femmes’ Milwaukee’s Victor DeLorenzo, jamming with brushes on a snare drum.
But it’s during the set’s third song, “3 O’Clock Things” — with Jack Met musing on the worries that keep him up at night, from politics to ongoing racism to social media overstimulation — that the AJR has shown its excessive ambitions. During the melody, Jack jumped on a treadmill towards the back of the stage in front of a video screen. Eight digital clones joined him on the walk, all holding one arm to try to stop a giant foot in a moccasin from slamming into them.
This treadmill would come in handy later on when Johnson walked around performing a jazzy instrumental medley touching on several AJR songs, from “Christmas in June” to their Daisy The Great “Record Player” collaboration.
And there would be more creative sets synchronized with video elements. Towards the end of “Ordinaryish People”, Adam and Ryan Met positioned themselves behind the drums near the big screen. In a bit clearly inspired by collaborators on the song Blue Man Group, digital blue paint rained down on the drums, the brothers slamming them with sticks, paint splashing across the screen in sync with the beats.
Then all of the video screens transformed into a painting of Jackson Pollock, with crew members playing tom drums all over the stage. Adam used a vacuum cleaner to suck most of the colors off the screen, leaving behind a rainbow-colored ball that he bounced with Ryan on drums.
The performance ended with a funny written message: “Intermission. Just kidding, nobody wants that.
Later, for “Burn the House Down”, Jack Met went behind a digital screen, seemingly inflating his head like a balloon by blowing into his thumb. The real Met emerged from behind the screen with a giant mascot mask on his real head, then did a bit in which he used two adjacent video screens as a carrier – throwing his basketball, a trumpet and finally himself behind one screen and emerging from the other.
“Weak” was preceded by a cool replica of the trio’s production process in their New York apartment, with the band gradually adding drums, trumpets, basses and other elements, adjusting the elements and the BPM. , and finally adding the distorted sound of a crying baby to complete the arrangement. Ryan also performed “Joe” without the band on the keys in the replica classroom — it’s addressed to a former classmate he lost touch with — with beatbox champion Kenny Urban seated on a school desk, spitting beside him.
But the most impressive track was saved for last during “Sad”, musically loud and lyrically anxious.
“Well I can’t fall asleep and I’m losing my mind / ‘Cause it’s half past three and my brain’s on fire,” Jack Met sang. “I counted the sheep but the sheep are all dead / And I ain’t dead yet, so I guess I’ll be fine.”
Trumpets that appeared to be in a tank of water floated into view on the video screen behind him. But then the song suddenly stopped, and a recurring visual motif throughout the show – a large red button with the words “Do Not Push” – appeared larger than ever in front of the tank.
Met has spoken of being diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder around five years ago, dealing with ‘intrusive irrational thoughts’ and worrying about ‘looking weak’ and not accepting when he was not doing well due to his parents’ rejection and divorce.
He then symbolically learned to embrace that struggle, letting a fan push the red button. The water tank shattered, a second video screen creating the illusion of the band submerged in water, locking onto their instruments for the song’s closing chorus, before the digital water emptied, the video screen only separates and the real brothers emerge to bow, all soaked.
I have no idea how AJR can top imaginative sets like this on their next tour. But I can’t wait to find out.
Takeaway meals (including BoyWithUke’s set)
- Masked musicians have been a thing long before masked, well, everyone, and joining a lineage that includes EDM legends Daft Punk and Madison’s punk band Masked Intruder is BoyWithUke, the opening act of ‘AJR Saturday. But beyond the LED mask with the large ring eyes, the anonymous up-and-comer has another gimmick with this ukulele, giving his lyrically angsty and musically smooth pop a little twang. Performing alone to backing tracks, there wasn’t much to rave about his set on Saturday – but he cracked Spotify’s Top 500 Artists Worldwide in terms of streaming numbers, he’s so clear he’s onto something.
- AJR had a lot of fun with the crowd, grabbing a taco hat a fan had in the pit to give to Ryan Met, as a potential replacement for a favorite hat he lost on a plane there three years old. Jack Met also chose his favorite sign, a funny and sarcastic poster that read “LOL Ur Nor Tyler Joseph”, a reference to the Twenty One Pilots frontman.
- Jack Met talked a bit about the band’s gig history in Milwaukee on Saturday, how their first gig was at Rave’s smaller venue, and their previous one was for 4,000 people at Rave’s Eagles Ballroom. Met also shared how after every tour he and his brothers predict they’ve just played for their biggest crowds. Believe me: the crowds in Milwaukee, and beyond, are going to get bigger.
Contact Piet at (414) 223-5162 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @pietlevy or Facebook at facebook.com/PietLevyMJS.