Fans were dashing frantically through the Xcel Energy Center when I arrived, scurrying to their seats in response to one of those sudden cheers that always turns out to be a false alarm—some roadie crossing the stage or an onstage banner dropping into place. But the keyed-up, black-clad faithful weren’t taking any chances. They’d waited three years for this pandemic-delayed reunion, from a band that last played here 11 years ago, when some of the younger ticket-holders hadn’t yet discovered them. The arena was positively giddy with anticipation for a rare event: a nostalgia reunion tour doubling as an induction ceremony for a new generation of fans.
Given the uncontrollable high spirits of the occasion, it made sense for My Chemical Romance to get their not-terrible new single “Foundations of Decay” out of the way first, almost as a buffer, an opportunity to burn off some of the excess enthusiasm in the house. If they’d led with “I’m Not Okay (I Promise),” their second song of the night, the hockey arena might have been choked with the smoke and stench of so many smoldering shells of spontaneously combusted emos. Even so, the crowd singalong practically wrenched the song away from the band. All concerts are singalongs—all good ones, anyway— but there are ah-we-all-remember-this-one singalongs and there are finally-I-get-to-scream-this-in-a crowd singalongs, and to hear the two styles weave around each other for 90 minutes or so was an experience.
“I’m Not Okay” is MCR in a nutshell: a sardonic yet heartfelt pop-punk cry for help spiked with a solo that sounds ripped from a Boston album track. The band’s increased popularity with younger listeners in the nine years they’ve been dormant makes sense. In our cesspool culture of incel trolls, rabid stans, and other corrosive malcontents who find strength in numbers, MCR are a fuckin’ unicorn: nerds who discovered their collective voice without becoming bullies. (Way’s Umbrella Academy comic getting adapted for Netflix couldn’t have hurt either.) At heart they’re just a gaggle of North Jersey dweebs who made something big and bold and relatable of their hopes and insecurities, and when it wasn’t fun anymore, they just quit.
Like all superheroes, frontman Gerard Way has an origin story he often returns to: The horror of 9/11 inspired him to form a band. What makes Way such a personable frontman is that he doesn’t traffic in either performative macho or manipulative vulnerability. He’s just a guy with a whole mess of frustrations. Sometimes he jokes about ’em; sometimes he just sings his little black heart out. And he interacts personably with a six-digit crowd. He sang “Happy Birthday” to a fan named Tori. When he asked the fans on the floor to “shimmy back” a bit, they did so happily, and got applause from the rest of the room for their safety-minded compliance. He dedicated one song to his mail carrier, Victor, just because he liked him.
In contrast with his monochrome fans, Way wore a flower-patterned shirt, which he said relaxed him. “It makes you feel like you’re on vacation,” he explained, while warning us not to get too relaxed—“because that’s how the spiders get you.” His brother, bassist Mikey, had a matching shirt. Guitarist Ray Toro, his hair grown out to a properly curly lead guitarist’s mane, adopted a classic spread-leg stance, head down, strumming ferociously, while his fellow guitarist Frank lero had thrown on a Bridgers-y skeleton hoodie.
An already roaring show hit liftoff for me personally mid-set, when I was shouting along with the youngest and/or most nostalgic of them. First came the arm-waving pomp of “Welcome to the Black Parade,” an anthem for “the broken, the beaten, and the damned” that magically makes good on the fake promises of inspirational ’70s AOR. The way Way elevates a climactic cornball chorus of “carry on,” you can almost wonder if Styx didn’t suck (they did), and the fist-pumping coda is like a “We Are the Champions” for the world’s proudest losers.
This led into the best song MCR will ever write, “Teenagers,” a satire of moral panics that doubles as a mean yet loving joke about and for their fans, and an opportunity for Toro to flaunt his flashy C.C. DeVille licks. Then they blasted unexpectedly into “Vampire Money,” a swaggering, tossed off roast of Twilight-funded bands that kicks with a call of “Three-two-one/We came to fuck” and instructs us to “sing it like the kids that are mean to you.” The Racket crew loves the song so much we put it on our “non-essential songs” playlist back in our City Pages days.
If MCR has a fault, it’s that their great songs are so clever and heart-swelling that when the good ones just kinda rock out, they can sound merely OK by comparison. When the band reached back to their rough, metallic debut, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, this felt like a pure nostalgia move, for themselves as much as for the fans. I’m not totally complaining—after all, they rock out real good—but their later artsy style clashes are where the band soars.
Me, I was probably at least as old as anyone in the Xcel crowd when I caught MCR at the Warped Tour in 2004, where they immediately became my favorite of the crop of “emo pop” bands that would get drenched in industry hype after the post-Strokes rockisback trend had run its course. They jostled together shards of guitar rock styles that their fans were too young to know or care if they were cool enough, but aged ears could pick out how cleverly they’d executed the trick. They were pop-punk (a given) and emo (if you can define it in 10 words or less), but also goth with a wink and glam with sneakily hair-metal choruses. And when they got famous, they got even better. And weirder.
So the highlights were mostly from the band’s final two albums, which offered more changeups. The gleefully morbid “Mama” (“we all go to hell”) bounces to a rock cabaret oompah beat that sounds like a nod to proto-goth Kurt Weill. Way wrote the earnest synth-driven “Summertime” (“You can run away with me/Any time you want”) for his wife. And then there’s the rabble-rousing nonsense chant of “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)” with its destructive fantasies of a “Ritalin rat” revolution both picking up where “Welcome to the Black Parade” leaves off and evolving into its evil twin.
For an encore, MCR led with the gorgeously overwrought, career-sparking “Helena.” (Imagine a more preening vocal and then honestly tell me that chorus couldn’t be, like, the prettiest melody Winger was never good enough to write.) But it was not yet so long and good night, for a huge spotlight cast a muzzy glow on the band as they anticlimaxed nicely with “Desert Song.” After all, they’d already said their piece with the final song of their proper set, when the room joined in with the chorus “I am not afraid to keep on living” as an affirmation of life and determination that cut through the gloom. Then again, that song’s title is “Famous Last Words.”