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Paramore Is a Group—For Better or Worse

The band's Xcel show was often terrific, but Hayley Williams sometimes seems like a star trapped in a constellation.

6:16 PM CDT on August 3, 2023

Zachary Gray

Paramore is a band, and last night at the Xcel Energy Center, Hayley Williams would not let us forget it. “I get to sing for a band called Paramore” is how the frontwoman pointedly and gratefully expressed her role after singing the jubilantly depressive “Hard Times.” Later, when introducing the band members, Williams emphasized how she, guitarist Taylor York, and drummer Zac Farro had first met when they were but mere Tennessee tweens. Farro later got up from his kit to take the mic on a truly OK song by his other band, HalfNoise—and if letting the drummer sing one isn’t rock egalitarianism I don’t know what is. Williams even dedicated the first song of the night’s encore, “Still Into You,” to the band that she’d (sort of) been in for nearly two decades.

“Sort of” because Williams has been the only consistent member of Paramore over the years, the helmswoman of her own Ship of Theseus. York joined a few years after the band’s formation; Farro left in 2011 with his brother, founding guitarist Josh, and returned in 2015. But Williams has been committed to the idea of Paramore from the start. At 14 she was so determined to belong to a group (or maybe just not to become Avril 2.0) that she insisted on working with a band even after Atlantic signed her as a solo act. York has consistently co-written with Williams since joining the band, and every song on their latest album, the pandemically anxious This Is Why, is credited to all three band members, and its postpunk agitation sounds like the work of a collaborative unit.

Still, York has a recessive stage presence, and Farro is, well, a drummer. On tour, four additional musicians join them, and the gaggle of boys gathered behind Williams only adds to the two male Paramore members’ anonymity. (There were three guitarists on stage last night, which is certainly excessive unless you plan to encore with “Freebird.”) Williams, though, has all the charisma and energy that her mates lack—early in the night, she took what appeared to be a white towel from a generous fan midsong and adopted it as a shawl with a show-woman’s innate spontaneity. And she can wail like a bat out of hell or coo like a bird on a wire. So live, Paramore is purely The Hayley Show. 

To an extent that’s how it should be. At 34, Williams remains a gleefully hyperactive stage presence, moving like someone possessed by that demon in the Buffy musical episode who made people dance till they burst into flames. Her hair is blonde these days, the flaming orange that was her youthful trademark long since bleached away. (Free samples from her Good Dye Young hair care line were available both inside and outside the arena.) She was decked out in a smart in red-and-black checked jacket with sizable white buttons and matching short-shorts, like a being Alice might have encountered if there were ska fans on the other side of the looking glass. 

But when the music stopped, so did Williams. The singer had plenty to say between songs, mostly about the privilege of rocking out with Paramore for so long and her gratitude toward the fans, and though none of this felt insincere it did feel flat. (I noted a cough or two last night, and a couple wobbly vocal moments, even before I learned that Williams missed a few dates recently because of illness.) Williams’s crowd interactions—pointing to the upper levels of the arena to elicit cheers, teaching the crowd to chant along to the hook in “Rose-Colored Boy”—felt more rote than ritual. 

They also felt a little too necessary. The mood in the Xcel seemed more appreciative than ecstatic, with fans near me seeming to almost mouth the words to themselves like private litanies rather than scream them out. The consistent background thrum of a great arena show was lacking; at times between songs, the room was nearly quiet. The sparks dropping from the sky and confetti explosions, rather than leading the crowd over the top, seemed required to keep them in the game. 

I don’t want to suggest this was a bad show—Williams is too much the entertainer to allow that, and moment by moment, it was often terrific. But it lacked the momentum that I could feel even way in the back of the Armory when Paramore last came through town in 2018. But Williams does seem stuck between stations as a performer: She lacks the freedom of a pop star to generate a unique spectacle centered on herself, and yet Paramore doesn’t generate the onstage interplay that allows a rock band to turn out a truly great arena show. 

What a career overview they offered though, breezing past whatever stylistic gap loomed between their “punk” and “pop” eras with self-defined confidence. Oldies like the taunting “That’s What You Get” from Riot!, with stage lights timed to flash along with Farro’s drum fills, or the moody early single “Decode” felt of a piece with the cheerily sneering “Ain’t It Fun,” the litely skanking “Caught in the Middle,” and the reluctant love ballad “The Only Exception.” “Last Hope” became a full crowd singalong, cellphone lights and all. And as has become her practice, Williams sprinkled moments of pop past into Paramore’s songs: A quote from “Genius of Love,” a nod to “Heart of Glass,” and an embrace of the millennial national anthem, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” all inject a bubbliness into the set that she never quite embraces in her own music.

The new material held up as well, though perhaps inevitably, it lost much of its spare, jittery character in the big room—arenas do homogenize a band’s sound. (Similarly the After Laughter songs had some of their Durannie pop-funk spritz ironed out.) “You First,” about how Hayley hopes karma gets you before it gets to her (“Everyone is a bad guy/And there's no way to/No way to know/Who's the worst”), made a killer opener; “Running out of Time” sounded as though it was about something more dire than “how I’m always late,” as Williams put it. Throughout, York played the sort of guitar that not even the best of us hacks was completely immune from calling “angular” back in the day. The title track from This Is Why earned the honor of closing out their encore, with a chorus of “This is why/I don’t leave the house” creating an oddly celebratory air of communal agoraphobia. 

Midshow, to once more reinforce the band’s coherence as a group, the trio alone appeared on a second stage, a loft where they performed the new ballad “Liar” and Williams’s solo song “Crystal Clear,” from her 2020 solo project, Petals for Armor. There was blue skyscape behind them and what appeared to be a giant bench in the shape of pi above them. It made for a nice “moment,” even if it felt too self-conscious for me to omit those snide quotation marks.  

Williams introduced “Big Man, Little Dignity” with a political message for the crowd, saying how bad things had gotten politically in Tennessee without, unfortunately, getting specific about those developments. She then made us pinkie promise the following: “We we hold people in power accountable to do what it is they’re put in their position to do.” Oh, and also to vote, which yes, voting is good, accountability is necessary, but naming some enemies and stating some principles is better. As Williams would say last night after "Hard Times," “Times have only gotten harder since we wrote that song,” and that was just six years ago.

As you may have heard, “Misery Business” has come back off the bench for this tour. The band “retired” its breakthrough song after its last tour in 2018 for its crimes against feminism—Williams sings “Once a whore/You’re nothing more” to another woman as they struggle over some boy who’s almost certainly not worth either's time, and I’ll admit that is really not a very nice thing to say to anyone. Williams is no longer excessively apologetic about the song, as she was during the last tour, but she did draw more attention to the offending lyric by mugging a bit and not singing it instead of just letting it rip. I get why she has problems with the fact that the most purely brain-flattening rocker she’s written is such a nasty bit of work, but, hey, such is art, and it’s a ladies prerogative to lash out every now and then.

Between 2018 and today, Miz Biz conquered TikTok, though the real reason it couldn’t stay off the set list for long is that Paramore’s longstanding tradition of inviting a fan up to scream the bridge is too crucial a ritual. Tonight the lucky star-for-a-minute was a woman named Carrie with long, straight green hair who’d been spotted holding a sign that read “FAN SINCE 05.” She not only sang the fuck out of that bridge, but she stuck around to duet with Williams on the chorus and the two indulged in coordinated hair flips liked old touring pals. Williams seemed especially energized following this interaction, and why not? It was the only time all night she really had someone to interact with onstage.

Setlist

You First
The News
That's What You Get
Playing God
Caught in the Middle
Rose-Colored Boy
Running Out of Time
Decode
Last Hope
Big Man, Little Dignity
Liar
Crystal Clear
Hard Times
Figure 8
The Only Exception
Crave
Baby
Misery Business
Ain't It Fun

Encore
Still Into You
This Is Why

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