It started with a Ferris wheel and ended with a rollercoaster. The ever-escalating excesses of big-budget concert touring have led us to Travis Scott’s Astroworld: Wish You Were Here tour, a wildly entertaining spectacle that brings the Houston rapper’s musical skill set to life and incinerates his weaknesses in literal flames. I witnessed this event Sunday in Columbus, and let me tell you: It’s one thing for a performer to “take you for a ride” and quite another to strap fans into chairs and lift them high above an arena floor.
Not that every person inside the Schottenstein Center got to hop aboard the circular contraption on the stage at the back of the floor, which had riders dangling upside down along its 360-degree circuit. Only maybe a dozen had that privilege, and by my count only two people besides Scott rode in a motorized cart high above the audience on the rollercoaster track that descended from the ceiling late in the show. Still, you have to admire the audacity — and the surely insane insurance premiums — required to take an album about an old abandoned amusement park on tour and give concertgoers access to actual death-defying carnival attractions.
Scott himself was often the least interesting part of Astroworld, but his impressive curatorial vision had everything to do with the album’s success. Not everyone can recruit a stunning cast of performers and producers and distill them into a coherent, cinematic whole. It was like his influence and quasi-relative Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with lower stakes — mostly just an aesthetic exercise, but one I listened to compulsively last year.
If Scott took somewhat of a backseat in his own music, the music itself took a backseat in his live show: It was there all along, sometimes to powerful effect, yet it couldn’t help feeling like a backdrop for the tour’s fantastical production values. Just as Astroworld was sort of a JV version of Dark Twisted Fantasy, the Astroworld: Wish You Were Here show reminded me of Kanye’s Saint Pablo tour, still the reigning champion of this arms race thanks to its unbelievable floating stage.
In terms of sheer entertainment value, this came close. Besides the Ferris wheel and rollercoaster, there was a giant inflatable astronaut, a humongous replica of Scott’s head like the one from the Astroworld cover, laser graphics projected on screens that lowered from the ceiling. A circular video screen cycled through images of questionable profundity (objects floating in space, a skyscraper with Russian words on it, a butterfly on fire) that felt like a full Instagram feed collapsed together, plus heavily processed handheld footage of the show and suitably nonsensical film sequences that attempted to wrangle the Astroworld’s motifs into an epic narrative. (The phrase “ESCAPE THE SIMULATION” appeared at least once.)
Also: so much fire. Before the fire, in the hour leading up to Scott’s set, there was so much smoke, which filled up the arena to the sound of ambient drone like a refrigerator’s hum. At 9:30, when the lights went down and the music kicked in, Scott surprised the legion of fans on the floor by emerging on the stage at the back of the arena. This resulted in thousands of people rushing across the room while Scott launched into “Stargazing” — a simple act of misdirection that upended expectations and amplified the sense of urgency that usually sets in at the beginning of a show.
By the time the first song hit its beat switch, Scott ditched his vest to reveal an Astroworld: Wish You Were Here tour T-shirt. After taking a ride on the Ferris wheel thingamajig, he continued stalking the rear stage, jumping in time with the psychedelic trap beats to rile up the crowd. The stage’s positioning within the arena created an in-the-round feel, and when Scott managed to keep the energy high — which was often — the building felt much smaller than arena size, as if we were all raging together in a packed club. Or as DJ Chase B put it, stationed inside what looked like a spaceship’s interior or NASA mission control: “We about to turn this whole arena into a house function.” Though Scott never crowdsurfed as I’d hoped, he exited the back stage to relocate to the vast platform up front by leaping down a hole in the floor at perilous speed.
Scott has a reputation of being more of a hype man than a rapper on stage, more focused on inciting his fans to go nuts than nailing his lyrics. This held true to a point. His contagious physicality and the astounding volume of Chase B’s bass blasts had people wilding out more often than not. “No Bystanders,” with its thunderous Waka Flocka “FUCK THE CLUB UP!” sample and vivid pyrotechnics, was especially invigorating. But despite all the madness transpiring around him, Scott was not just the P.T. Barnum of this circus. He rapped more often than I expected, even breaking out a mic stand during the middle third of the show, an equivalent to the acoustic interlude at a rock show, focusing on quieter tracks like “90210” and James Blake’s “Mile High.” (He would have been better off not attempting to double SZA’s vocals on “Love Galore.”)
Years ago, critics wrote Scott off as a biter, and although he’s now managed to congeal his influences into something distinct, they’re perhaps even more evident in concert than on record. This being an Ohio show, he made sure to shout out Kid Cudi, whose druggy eclecticism and pitchy sing-rapping definitely made their mark on Scott. So much of what was popping in the early years of this decade, just before he began his ascent, clearly left an imprint on his taste. Think of Cudi descendants like Drake and Future or the pummeling gothic trap of producer Lex Luger. Onstage more than on record, you can see Tyler, The Creator’s influence, too, from Scott’s wardrobe to the the way he turns his rap gigs into punk-rock shows. And as always, there’s the looming specter of the guy who took Scott under his wing and helped nudge him toward ubiquity.
This came into focus better than ever at the end of Scott’s 75-minute set, when that rollercoaster lowered into view and he finished out with some of his biggest hits. “Antidote” and “Goosebumps,” serviceable radio staples from Rodeo and Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight respectively, brought the venue to fever pitch. And then came the only proper conclusion, Astroworld’s chart-topping oddity “Sicko Mode,” presented with all the fanfare you’d hope. Computerized faces on the video screen spewed green puke. Upon the “Gimme The Loot” sample, Scott thrust his pelvis just as confetti cannons made it rain fake money. He rapped Drake’s lyrics as well as his own — and I must say, rarely have I witnessed irony like a sold-out arena partying to a chorus about about popping Xanax and sleeping for 13 hours.
I’m not sure what the point of all this was besides entertainment for entertainment’s sake, but I am sure I was entertained. The whole hollow yet stimulating ordeal had me flashing back once again to Kanye, this time to Watch The Throne: its elaborately expensive tour setup, sure, but mostly the sampled Blades Of Glory dialogue: “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative — gets the people going!”