Wow, what a difference a year makes! In June of last year, AJR played to a half full Stir Cove as the opener for Foster the People. Friday night (9/20), AJR brought their Neotheater world tour to Stir Cove and it was completely sold out!
I think it’s safe to say, AJR is having the best year of their career so far. Their new album Neotheater, debuted at number one on the Billboard Alternative and Top Rock charts, and number eight on the Billboard Top 200 chart, respectively, and their tour has been selling out dates all across the country.
It would be easy to say “Wow, AJR blew up so quickly!” However, while they have seen a real surge in popularity the last few years, the road to Friday’s sold out show has been a long time coming.
In 2006, brothers Adam, Jack, and Ryan “AJR” started performing and recording music in their apartment and busking on the streets of New York. In 2012, the band tweeted their song “I’m Ready” to a list of about 80 celebrities. They caught the attention of Australian singer Sia, who passed the song on to her manager, who contacted Columbia Records. The song began receiving airplay on Sirius XM and AJR quickly established themselves as a band to watch. They would go on to sign with Warner Music Group in 2013 and released the Infinity E.P. in 2014. Then in March of 2015, AJR released their much anticipated debut album Living Room.
In 2016, AJR wrote and recorded the song “Weak” within one day having no idea it would become their next single. Since it’s release, the song has gone platinum in the U.S., Canada, and several European countries, and has received millions of streams.
In June of 2017, AJR released their second studio album The Click which featured “Weak” as a single. Debuting at number 61 on the Billboard Top 200, the album saw some success on the popularity of “Weak,” but it was the album’s third single “Sober Up” which features Rivers Cuomo from Weezer that really helped the band break through. AJR released “Sober Up” as a single in September of 2017 and little by little it started receiving more and more radio play until finally reaching its peak in the spring of 2018.
I started hearing “Sober Up” on our local alternative station 89.7 The River and thought it was catchy, but wasn’t completely blown away.
In March of 2018, AJR announced that Click would be re-released with additional tracks including a new single “Burn the House Down.” Until that point I hadn’t really followed the band’s career, and I was only aware of “Sober Up,” but the first time I heard “Burn the House Down” I knew it was a game changer. When I caught them with Foster the People the crowd was going crazy with their new summer anthem.
Now that you have a little AJR backstory let’s get into the show!
Even before opening act Tessa Violet took the stage the house was packed. I spoke with a lot of fans who had driven for hours just to see this show. One family drove four hours because Council Bluffs was the closest tour date, but another family came up from Kansas City because their show was sold out too and the tickets were going for sky-high prices. They said they had to pay aftermarket for Friday’s show but it was much more reasonable.
The first act Tessa Violet was a lot of fun. Tessa donned a green jumpsuit and her band mates had matching white jumpsuits.
Judging by their look, I wasn’t really sure what we were going to get. Maybe something similar to Devo?
That thought was quickly dismissed as Tessa and her band started to crank out some bouncy, happy rhythms. The crowd responded kindly and seemed to be having a great time. The second song “Bad Ideas” had a huge crowd response with many fans singing along. You could tell it was seeing some streaming success.
Tessa did a great job warming the crowd up. I love that she playfully addressed this, saying
“I’m the warm up act. It’s literally my job to warm you up, and if I don’t do a good job I’ll be fired.”
By the end of the set the crowd was waving back and forth and having a giant dance party. Your job is safe Tessa! Who knows, maybe she’ll be selling out Stir Cove next summer?
After a break for set up it was time for the brothers from New York, AJR!!
Before we get into that, I’d like to take a second and give a serious nod to Lizzo and the awesome success she is seeing right now. In between sets the house music was playing mostly pop and hip-hop. I noticed the crowd was singing along to a Macklemore song pretty loudly but I didn’t think too much of it. Right before AJR, the house music started playing Lizzo’s latest single “Truth Hurts” and the place went nuts! I don’t think I’ve ever heard such loud singing just for the house music. You would’ve thought we were at a Lizzo show! Crazy stuff.
Anyways, on to the main event!
AJR had a really cool stage setup with a wall of L.E.D displays behind them. The screen started typing out some text that said there was technical difficulties and there would be a 45 minute delay. A few seconds later the text said “F@ck it, let’s start. The crowd went wild.
Opening with the first track from Neotheater “Next Up Forever,” AJR lit up the stage with smoke and displays of clouds and trumpets similar to the Neotheater album artwork. Lead singer Jack excitedly bounced around, twisting and jumping to the beat.
I was seriously impressed with AJR’s stage setup. Compared to what they are working with now, their set last year looked like Fisher-Price toys. AJR’s current setup had a full drum kit, tons of electronics, and a dedicated trumpet player.
Each song had an accompanying video backdrop giving the music a whole new dimension. Using a conveyer belt, Jack walked down a city street holding an umbrella to stay dry from the falling rain displayed on the video. It was a really neat visual trick.
Another cool video was when multiple images of Jack showed up on the screen with varying sizes. All of the Jacks began high five-ing each other to the beat of the song eventually passing the high-five down to the real Jack on stage.
During another song Jack threw virtual paint across the screen, but the most impressive video and thing that really kept my interest came during the song “Don’t Throw Out My Legos.” Before starting the song, keyboard player Ryan Met explained how the song was built, visually laying out all of the samples and different tracks that came together to create the final sound. It was really fun to get a behind the scenes look at how the band created such a unique sound.
As much as AJR has built a successful career by creating upbeat, catchy songs I think the real key to AJR’s success is their ability to connect with their audience in such a positive way. Many of AJR’s songs touch on things everyone goes through when they are young (making friends, peer pressure, struggling to find your place) making them very relatable to fans of all ages, but the youth especially.
During their hour and a half set AJR was able to play their entire Neotheater album and some of their biggest hits from previous works including “Weak,” “Sober Up,” and “Burn the House Down.” Saving one of their biggest hits for last, AJR came back out for an encore and played “100 Bad Days” wearing all black jumpsuits. As the first big crescendo hit the lights went out and the suits lit up with rope lights. As everyone on stage danced, the screens displayed their light movements, making for a pretty awesome finale. The fans were glued to the sensory display and only after the final notes were played did the venue start to empty.
From a visual perspective, this show ranks really high on my list, and I’ve seen somewhere around 400 over the last 20 years. I can’t wait to see what AJR comes up with next. You can be sure I’ll be there every time.
A huge thanks goes out to Stir Cove for setting up photo access for this show and so many others we were able to cover this season. I hope we can do the same next year!
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Tessa Violet Gallery