December 17, 2015
Shinedown members Brent Smith, Eric Bass, Zach Myers, and Barry Kerch
Rock concerts simply don’t work without an enormous venue into which hordes of eager fans and groupies can cram themselves for a night of bangin’ fun. In the case of Breaking Benjamin and Shinedown’s 2015 Tour, one such venue was the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pennsylvania.
After standing in line for a good half hour in the nearly-freezing night air, my companions and I made it to our seats with incredible timing, and we sat as the first act began a shocking five minutes early. The slow-building crescendo of sound immediately vibrated through me, shaking my ribs and reminding me just what kind of night I was in for. Lights flashed intermittently, growing more frequent until the opening band slammed into their first song, which as far as I could tell must have been called “Yell Scream Roar Crash.”
The band was called Sevendust, and I had never heard of them. It’s difficult to know if their songs sounded like so much incoherent screaming because of their music style or simply because live rock music doesn’t sound like much unless you know what to listen for, but previous concert experiences would lead me to believe the latter.
Sevendust’s lead vocalist, Lajon Witherspoon, was very enthusiastic. He had a tendency to yell something to the effect of “lemme see your hands in the air!” every 30 seconds, sometimes even in the middle of a song.
Two songs in their set stood out to me: “Thank You” and “Angel’s Son.” The first was a single from their newest album, “Kill the Flaw,” and opened with a damn good bass drum rhythm that, sadly, doesn’t seem to exist in the studio version. The second was introduced with a shout-out and dedication to the victims of the terrorist attack at the Eagles of Death Metal concert in Paris on Nov. 13, and was a more laid-back and emotional song that rang clearly even to my unrecognizing ears.
Breaking Benjamin opened their set very slowly, and when the reverberating echo of some long lost guitar chord broke into a melody, I doubt it was what anyone in the stadium was expecting: the instantly identifiable opening theme to the Star Wars films. After that dramatic entrance, the band went straight into “So Cold” without any context or explanation.
Once a song or two had passed, I mostly forgot about their awesome-yet-confusing intro. This meant that I was again taken completely by surprise when they stopped partway through their act and broke into a heavy rock rendition of the Imperial March, this time accompanied by the iconic sounds of Darth Vader’s heavy breathing and a deep voice telling us, “There will be an awakening this December.” Apparently, they’re a little bit fond of the franchise.
The band’s set list included a large chunk of their most popular songs, such as “Breath” and “I Will Not Bow,” while also showcasing a couple of the singles from their new album, “Dark Before Dawn.”
The most striking aspect of the performance was the brilliant choreography of the light design. The many lights on the stage were all in satisfying synchronization with the performance itself, changing with the chords and settling into triumphant bursts on the drum beats.
The stage design kicked it up a notch for “Blow Me Away.” A slow and eerie build of purple fog led into the song, giving the entire thing a very atmospheric feel, and partway into the song they introduced jets of fog timed to the beats and each lit to be a gradient from white to purple. It was the highest in energy of all their songs.
The most memorable moment of Breaking Benjamin’s set, however, was during their performance of “Give Me A Sign.” During the song’s bridge, the other band members kept up an instrumental backing while Benjamin Burnley, the vocalist, instructed everyone in the audience to turn on the lights of their phones and hold them up. Then all of the other lights in the stadium turned off. Alone, he said, we would have been in the dark and afraid, but all together there was no fear because it was “fucking bright as fuck.” While his vernacular lacked elegance, the message was there, and the final chorus of the song was strong, wonderful, and lit entirely by the light of the audience.
Despite Breaking Benjamin’s excellent set, Shinedown managed to bring another layer of awesome to their performance. They opened with “Cut the Cord,” the first of their new album’s singles, and made it explosive with the addition of fireworks during the chorus.
In his introduction, the band’s front man, Brent Smith, instructed the audience to turn to their right and their left and shake hands with their neighbors. Meanwhile, he bent down and shook every hand in the front row.
In many ways, Shinedown’s repertoire of songs is perfectly suited to a live performance. From “The Crow and the Butterfly,” which had people swaying and waving their arms and occasionally elbowing their neighbor in the face, to “Enemies,” which had the entire stadium jumping up and down with the power of the song. The songs had the ability to shift the mood, and Smith had the voice and the verve to bring the audience right along with them.
Before one of their new songs, “State of My Head,” Smith replicated Burnley’s instructions and once again had the audience light up their phones. He said that Shinedown doesn’t believe in a ceiling, and told us that there were 9,000 stars in the stadium and he wanted to see them all. Rather than just holding them up, that song had us waving our phones like the lighters of old, aching arms be damned.
Although Smith’s voice at times seemed less powerful than in studio versions, perhaps due to his recent struggle with nodes on his vocal cords, at no point did the performance suffer for it. He seemed to have a persistent echo as hundreds of people in the audience sang along, backing him up and filling out the sound, and his stage presence was powerful throughout.
After such a night, there are few good ways to say goodbye, but Smith nailed it. Following his shout of, “Everyone get down!” the entire set exploded into fire, light, and the sound of cannons. Then he jumped backward off the stage into darkness, having ended the concert with a bang.
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December 17, 2015