People are still debating about when exactly emo music died. In 2011, just before the release of ultimately their final record as a band, emo forefathers My Chemical Romance spoke with the Dallas Observer about “shedding their emo roots” and rejecting the word from their lexicon entirely. MTV wrote a pseudo-memoriam and defense of the genre in 2014, admitting that liking emo music had become “the equivalent of Hester Prynne being branded with a scarlet A.” To the layman, it seems that the genre took its final breath with the death of Warped Tour this past summer; but anyone who managed to catch Jimmy Eat World headline a sold-out show at The Wiltern this past Saturday would refute that.
Before Jimmy Eat World took the stage, the Massachusetts-based four-piece known as The Hotelier primed the audience with the type of unabashed emo rock that certainly feels like it’s still alive and well. With sing-along choruses and lyrics that told familiar stories of heartbreak, the Hotelier weren’t afraid to be vulnerable. Despite occasionally harmonizing with the very specific 2002-esque whine, they understood the power of a moody, emo pop song with a slow build-up and gut-rattling bass. The audience – overwhelmingly dudes and couples in their late 20’s and early 30’s dressed in band tees and old Vans – looked like they were right at home during the set.
And, fittingly, feeling right at home ended up being a constant theme of the night.
After a year and half of touring for their ninth – yes, ninth – studio album Integrity Blues, Jimmy Eat World wrapped up their final performance of the tour with a two-hour, career-spanning set before a sea of 2,000 fans. Lead singer, guitarist, and lyricist Jim Adkins remarked that – despite he and the band originally hailing from Mesa, Arizona – performing in LA always felt like “playing for a hometown crowd.” The feeling was mutual; the Wiltern floor was packed with bodies of fans so clearly experiencing something emotional every time Jim approached the microphone.
The show opened with Integrity Blues’ catchy first single “Sure and Certain,” and set the perfect tone for the evening. Despite looking a bit older and now singing about ideas slightly larger than young love, Jim and co. managed to still maintain the youthful spirit and drive they possessed on their 2001 smash record Bleed American. By the time Jimmy pulled out the 1999 deep cut “For Me This Is Heaven” only four songs in, it became unavoidable to consider the breadth of their sprawling discography.
It’s a bit unbelievable to think about but Jimmy Eat World has been writing and performing music for 25 years now – that’s a quarter of a century with the same lineup, too. The number of groups who can boast the same thing can all probably be counted on one hand, and even then, I’m not sure those artists are still putting out good music. And yet, Jimmy still is.
Quashing any thoughts that perhaps the boisterous crowd was there to only hear the hits, the band tore through a barrage of recent tracks including the guitar-driven romp “Get Right” and sweet ballad “It Matters” – both of which were received by the audience as if they were old friends. 2007’s “Always Be” elicited cheers of joy and coordinated clapping at the chorus just before 1999’s “Lucky Denver Mint” prompted dozens to raise cups of beer above their heads and start singing passionately with eyes closed. A casual fan or uninformed observer wouldn’t be able to detect which songs in the set were classics, and which were new – which is shockingly rare. Everything felt sweetly familiar while still managing to surprise.
The stage production and lighting setup even conjured familiar feelings of home and enhanced the ideal scene. Towering over the band and their instruments were street lights in forced perspective, giving the impression that a road traveled on beyond the theatre’s walls. The lights flickered and buzzed throughout the set, calling back to suburban evenings of driving around with friends while probably listening to Futures, those awkward late-night dalliances, and the sweet intimacy of sitting on a car hood during an Indian summer. Like Jimmy Eat World itself, the whole scene was reminiscent of a simpler time without relying entirely on the sentimental.
But the night wasn’t without its nostalgic moments. After taking the time to cruise through nearly every record they’ve released, Jimmy took pit stops that brought everything to a powerful halt. An acoustic rendition of “Hear You Me” created a chorus of voices sweetly repeating the refrain, “May angels lead you in / May angels lead you in,” before “Blister” drowned out deafening echoes of “And how long would it take me / To walk across the United States / All alone?” By the time we reached mega-hit “Sweetness” during the encore, I worried the second level of the Wiltern floor would break. Multiple people around me had tears in their eyes during the genre-defining song “The Middle” and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I had a few too.
Most bands in Jimmy’s place would’ve easily played that encore several times over, skimming through highlights from Clarity, Bleed American, Futures, and then called it a night. But Jimmy Eat World isn’t other bands. They’ve been doing this for 25 years and they’re still making good music. Their performance at the Wiltern proved they don’t need to bank on nostalgia to give their audience something meaningful and emotional – and that’s actually kind of staggering to consider. With music fans now relying on catered playlists of yesteryear, “most played tracks,” and music imbued with fond memories far removed from our current contemporary political consciousness, it’s incredible to see new rock music thriving.
In the case of Jimmy Eat World, emo music isn’t dead – it’s just grown and matured into something else. It’s manage to stumble its way into adulthood, pushed forward by both its creators and its fans. And that’s definitely something worth celebrating.