Last week, I was fortunate enough to visit a very dear friend of mine in Baltimore. I was even more fortunate to be able to attend the biggest rock concert in the country that day with him: Metallica at M & T Stadium. It was an otherworldly experience, and one I won't soon forget. Then, yesterday, on May 15th, I went out to Mohawk Place to see an acoustic show for the alt-metal band Trapt. I was going to review the show, and I still am, but I wanted to make this piece more of an analysis on how both shows were powerful in their own right, despite being in both size and scope the most different any two rock shows could be. But both stirred my emotions, and that feels like the beginnings of a thought piece to me.
There's just something about being at stadium filled with tens of thousands of people that really puts things in perspective. At the Metallica show, every single person in that stadium as filled with an energy that made the air crackle and arc with electricity. By the time Metallica took the stage, the place exploded, and so did the band. Five massive video screens on a stage that spanned the arena, fireworks, massive pyrotechnics, lasers...this was a show that pulled out every stop and then some. The sound was thunderous and the bass shook the blood in my body. I screamed every word until my voice was hoarse and banged my head until I was sure I had whiplash. I was alive and I knew it.
This is the kind of show where I knew I was in for the biggest rock/metal show of my life and it checked every box. I was a part of celebrating the heroes of thrash metal, one of the movements in metal that is still celebrated and lauded today. I left that show energized and with a grin from ear to ear. Metallica knew they owned the stage that night and made every word felt and heard.
By contast, many of the bands that emerged in during the prime time of alt and nu metal (1999-2011) have largely faded into the background of people's consciousness. Smile Empty Soul and Trapt, the two headliners of the small, intimate acoustic show at Mohawk Place that I attended, were Gold and Platinum selling artists respectively. They both had huge hits on rock radio, and in the case of Trapt in particular, back in the early 2000's you couldn't watch MTV2, listen to hard rock radio, or watch wrestling or basically any sporting event without hearing their massive hit "Headstrong." They were a huge part of my musical fabric growing up in high school, and now here they were, just two guys with an acoustic guitar and a cajon in a tiny room that wasn't even really full. I wasn't sure what to expect walking in.
But by the time the night was over I had had just as much fun as I did at Metallica. But how? There was no arena, no lasers or pyrotechnics and no thunderous sound system. But there was life, through and through. One of the local openers, Exham Priory, was so much fun and played with so much energy that I ended up buying one of their EP's. The next group, Toy Called God channeled their inner Soundgarden and really hit that swampy, bluesy vibe that I really dug. Smile Empty Soul played a strong set that drew a lot of people into the room. They had that classic post grunge sound that has long been a mainstay for shows in a working class city like Buffalo, and despite the background din of the crowd, the duo played from a place of honesty and even covered some of lead singer Sean Danielsen's solo album, which felt very personal and hit home.
However, it was Trapt, with lead singer Chris Taylor Brown at the helm, that really made me leave that night with a smile of a different sort on my face. He enthusiastically greeted the small crowd, and started the set. His voice blew me away. I've long said that many of the singers for these alt/nu metal bands could be pop stars if they wanted. This rang true tonight. Brown's voice has just a bit of grit but was so emotional and passionate, he could've fit with any other acoustic artist on pop radio. This was a subverting of expectations. Here was a band known for their aggressive and testosterone fueled hit and here was Brown, playing songs of real depth and emotion. Not to say that it wasn't always there, but just that here, in this environment, I truly took the time to discover it. He prefaced every song with what it meant to him and what it was about, and with each one I was just struck at how there was so much more to this band that met the eye. These guys were hard rock stars, and now here they were in a dive bar in Buffalo. Times and tastes had changed around them, but in that moment I swear they felt like a band on the brink of breaking out once again.
Rock was not dead. Not by a longshot. With Metallica, it was spectacle and bombasity and thunder and lightning and sweat and blood. With Trapt, it was emotion, passion, intimacy, heartache, and triumph. Rock is all of these things. Life is all of these things. And both rock shows filled me to the brim with life. It's hard to put exactly what I was feeling into words, but on one side here's a legendary band, still playing for tens of thousands of people and waving the banner of metal for all to see. And here's another band, whose time you may say has passed, but that still lives and plays with grace and passion and humility and emotion and thanks in front of less than a hundred people. And both times I was stirred.
That's what a great rock show is all about.