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Just after sunset on a Monday in May, early summer heat is mellowing into a soft, balmy night, and the Arizona State University campus in Tempe is animated with end-of-the-semester buzz. A benefit concert hosted by local indie label Western Tread is starting late, and outside the Galvin Playhouse, a chattering mass of teens and twentysomethings, all casual in their colorful tees and shorts, form a crooked queue that stretches across campus.
Before long, the doors are flung open and the snaking line steadily pushes its way inside as ticketholders shuffle into tiered rows of plush, theater-style seating. The whole place is full by the time the lights go down for acoustic performances by Reubens Accomplice, The Format, and Jimmy Eat World's Jim Adkins.
It's the same lineup that played Western Tread's benefit show at Celebrity Theatre three years ago, so tonight was pretty much a guaranteed success. And sure enough, this 500-capacity event sold out three weeks in advance, says promoter Charlie Levy. "We didn't even have to advertise the show and it was gonna sell out," he says.
For most of the evening, the audience sits in hushed awe during the unplugged sets, bursting into cheers and applause between songs. It's no unruly rock show by any stretch of the imagination -- the prevalence of flip-flops alone is a good indication -- but the crowd gets extra giddy when The Format starts playing.
The musicians and their instruments are strewn across a wide stage where a big, black fake tree spreads its papier-mâché branches across a rose-colored Old West backdrop.
Seated front and center like a rag doll in an oversize wooden rocking chair, Format front man Nate Ruess tugs at the sleeves of his brown striped sweater and leans forward to sing, pushing messy hair out of his eyes. You'd almost expect the vulnerable voice of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst to come from this endearingly disheveled waif, so the effortless power of his smooth, high-pitched vocal style is disarming.