“Theater-in-the-round” (also known as an arena stage) has its roots in Greek rituals, only later transitioning into early theater. The audience was a much of a part of the performance as those in the center, and the priests (and later performers) would feed off the energy of the crowd. So it’s only fitting that Panic! At The Disco would perform in the round while supporting their latest album, Pray For The Wicked (2017) at the Houston Livestock and Rodeo.
The first thing fans saw after taking their seats was a paper heart cut-out placed in their cupholder, courtesy of the street team. The idea was simple; just place it over your phone’s light during “Girls/Girls/Boys” to contribute to the show. They were, quickly forgotten when the lights dropped.
Just like in an action movie, the stars arrived at the foot of the stage via two black SUVs that sped across the grounds like they were being chased.
After a little more bells and whistles, the star-shaped stage opened up like a hand unclenching a fist, and Panic! At The Disco began their set with “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time,” much to the fan’s approval.
One thing that becomes apparent very quickly at a Panic! at the Disco concert is that when you want to sing along, you need to SING along. By the time the band had warmed up with their first couple of songs and were ready to get in to “L.A. Devotee” and “Hallelujah,” the crowd had gone from screaming fans to a full-blown choir.
It was also clear that someone had put a lot of thought and effort into the graphics being projected on the circle of mega-screens above the stage. Every square inch not being used by live-feed was covered by graphics pertaining to the theme of each song or references to their music videos. Although a show at the rodeo does pose limitations to the band’s usual set (for example, Houston wouldn’t be treated to Brendon Urie on a flying piano during “Dying in L.A“), the crew had clearly put just as much effort into detail as usual.
“Ballad of the Mona Lisa” set the crowd off, but nowhere near to the level of hysterics that “Nine In The Afternoon”did. It’s the only song the band still plays off their 2008 sophomore effort, Pretty. Odd., the first of many drastic departures from the band’s previous style. It was the last record founding members Ryan Ross (guitar) and Jon Walker (bass) played on before leaving the band due to creative differences.
The sound of a heartbeat pulsed through the speakers, drawing gasps and shuts of recognition from the crowd. “This Is Gospel,” hit single off Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die, was written about drummer Spencer Smith and his difficulties with substance abuse. It has a special place with the band and fans alike, especially after his departure from the band in 2015.
Sighs turned to swoons when “Death of a Bachelor” began to play, a song where Urie’s vocal range truly shines. The title track off their 2016 release best embodies the statements given to the press that the album would be akin to a lovechild by Frank Sinatra and Beyonce.
Panic! has been a theatrical band since their debut courtesy of Pete Wentz’s Decaydance Records. But it was never enough to satiate Urie’s flair for the dramatic. This lead to a stint on Broadway as Charlie Price in Cyndi Lauper’s award winning musical, Kinky Boots.
The musical bug hasn’t left him yet. In fact, he’s been including a cover of “The Greatest Show” in recent performances, giving the crowd another song to sing along to.
The audience were called to do more than sing along during the next song. As soon as “Girls/Girls/Boys” began to play, the more attentive fans rushed to place the paper hearts over their phone lights. Soon enough, those around them caught on, revealing a surprise to everyone. The audience had been divided into about eight thick columns, and each had been given a different colored heart. The effect was a double rainbow of twinkling cellphone lights encircling the stage. The crowd was as awed as the band themselves, Urie expressing joy and gratitude at the display in an uncharacteristically softer tone, making the words sound genuine and unscripted.
The spell broken by the first brassy notes of “High Hopes,” another of Panic!’s breaks onto the Billboard Hot 100. The band kept building momentum with other bangers like “Miss Jackson” until the crowd was properly warmed up for a well-received rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Now in the endgame of the show, it became clear they’d been saving their most energetic songs for the end. Finally deciding that the two hour tease had gone on long enough, the band played their most popular hit, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.” The song earned the most resounding shouts and applause. Anyone that wasn’t on their feet by now jumped up to sing along unison, even to the whispered ‘I love you’s’ heard only in the music video.
Interestingly, that wasn’t their closer, instead choosing to end their set with “Victorious.” One of the best things about a venue like the NRG Stadium is the ability to go ham on indoor fireworks and Texas-big pyrotechnics. All these were released in full to mark the finally. After another thank you, the band hopped onto the back of a pickup truck and sped to the exit on the opposite side of where they’d come in, the house lights finally rising to bring the audience back to reality.
Smiling Houstonians mingled with each other on their way out, reaffirming they were one of the friendliest fanbases around. Complete strangers complimented and hugged each other when they noticed they had the same band shirt on. Two small children talked their older sister’s ear off relaying their favorite parts of the show, she grinning at their enthusiasm. A teen girl stopped people with cool outfits for a Polaroid picture, eventually pointing the small pink camera at me and my silver pants.
Panic! At The Disco had somehow managed to make a crowd of over 70,000 feel intimate and communal without compromising any of their usual bombastic performance. It was certainly a memorable debut to the Houston Rodeo, one that fans are likely to remember for years to come.