There are not many artists who will crowdsurf in an inflatable rubber duckie. Andrew McMahon will, and he’ll make it seem unusual that other artists don’t.
The emo idol turned pop-rock imagineer does whoa-oh-oh singalong theatrics better than most. In plenty of less-deft hands, the trappings of an Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness show would melt like processed cheese. The duck thing, during “Don’t Speak For Me.” The wacky inflatable tube guys that sprang to life in startling speed on “High Dive.” McMahon, formerly of the bands Jack’s Mannequin and Something Corporate, has trained his fans to expect these stunts in between his turns at the piano. (He brought the same bag of tricks to his show at Emo’s earlier this year.) But on Friday at Austin City Limits Music Festival, technicolor joy needed to happen more than ever.
Enter — quite literally — the rainbow parachute.
“We’ve been through a lot this week,” McMahon said, in seeming reference to the shooting massacre in Las Vegas. “We’ve lost a lot this week. But we’re here.”
Concerts, McMahon said, matter because they bring people of all backgrounds together to sing and dance. And with that, a parachute bearing a spiral of colors appeared over a section of the audience at the American Express stage, soon to travel across the throngs of people who jumped for joy underneath it while McMahon sang about seeing colors on “Synesthesia.” The parachute is a McMahon staple, but when he draped it over his shoulders and stoop atop his piano, it seemed a little more defiantly hopeful.
Defiant hope, by the way, means a lot coming from McMahon. The singer famously battled leukemia, which put a hold on his music career. His on-stage presence — twisting his spine away from his piano and toward rapturous fans as if he can’t stand to not be with them; using that piano as another stage level; striking the keys like a cobra on “Dead Man’s Dollar,” his own fangs bared when he opens up his arms and tells his fans he wants to make a life for them — is irrepressible joie de vivre from a man who knows what’s at stake in this life. His vocals are always earnest and just a little Broadway. His songs tell stories of unsparing, unconditional love and someone who is his “silver lining.” Heck, the man was already out in the pit in front of the stage by the second song.
For those who might read a report from an Andrew McMahon show for one very specific reason, the answer is yes: He said “I’m going to put on the time machine,” and he played “Dark Blue” and “I Woke Up In a Car,” two Jack’s Mannequin staples that got many of a certain generation deep into their nostalgic feelings.
The other loss McMahon alluded to at one point in the set, the death of Tom Petty, was marked before set-closer “Cecilia and the Satellite,” dedicated to the rock legend. But perhaps the best punctuation for a set whose audience only grew as time went on was on “I Woke Up in a Car.” It’s a song that any mid-2000s emo kid worth their salt knows word for word, especially the word “Mississippi.” After a beautiful a Capella harmony, McMahon ended the song the way many probably wish they could mark definitive moments in their lives: by sticking a running jump landing on the ol’ ivories.
To paraphrase the man himself, there are always people waiting there whenever you are all alone, ready to dance to music that makes you feel better. Sometimes, they have inflatable rubber duckies.