Sep 10, 2021

Back To The 90's At The Steel Stacks

Tonic / Better Than Ezra / Collective Soul
Just Looking Around: 2020 2021 Tour
Levitt Pavilion Steel Stacks - Bethlehem, PA
This was my first time seeing Collective Soul perform in over fourteen years.  The two concerts had a few things in common.  Both shows featured three bands who are best known for albums that were released in the 90's.  However, on August 22nd, 2007, Collective Soul was the opening act for Live and Counting Crows.  Last night in Bethlehem, they were the headliner, with Tonic and Better Than Ezra opening for them.

Last night's show was the Bethlehem stop on the trio's Just Looking Around tour.  This was originally their 2020 with the Steel Stacks show scheduled to take place on June 15th of last year.  It was postponed to July 13th of this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and then it was postponed a second time to September 9th, 2021.  I'm not sure if the second postponement was due to the pandemic or something else altogether, but I'm very happy to say that

The Steel Stacks in Bethlehem is one of the coolest venues that I've ever been to.  It's built around the industrial ruins of the Bethlehem Steel company with a stage at the base of the old blast furnace.  During their annual Musikfest festival, there are multiple stages and performances for ten days.  We saw Duran Duran there six years ago on the Sands Stage, and after the show, we walked around to what is now the Levitt Pavilion to see Rubix Kube's set.  This is the stage where last night's show had taken place.

There are more than just concert stages at the Steel Stacks.  There's a movie theater, bars, restaurants, museums, a convention center, and a public walkway where you can go through some of the structures that remain from the days of Bethlehem Steel.  It's truly incredible, and it shows what a city can accomplish for the public good if they work together to achieve it.

Tonic started their set with the first track off of their 1996 debut album, Lemon ParadeOpen Up Your Eyes is the first of the band's that I became familiar with when I was a teenager, and it's still my favorite song of theirs.  It's become an anthem to me against anxiety, over-thinking and the opinions and criticisms of others.  Don't let all of those voices, whether they be from others or the voices of self-doubt, tell the story.  Open your eyes and see the story for yourself.

This was followed up with Take Me As I Am and Liar, both off of their third album: Head On Straight.  I'm not familiar with this record, but it was nominated for a Grammy in 2003.  I especially enjoyed Take Me As I Am, which was also Grammy nominated.  Next, they played You Wanted More, which is a song that has taken on a much deeper meaning to me since I heard it for the first time while watching American Pie when I was 18 years old.  The next song, Queen, was also off of the band's 1999 sophomore album, Sugar.  This one wasn't also on the soundtrack of a hit comedy, so I wasn't as familiar with it, but it's a good song.

The sixth song of Tonic's set was unquestionably their biggest hit: If You Could Only See.  Before they played it, singer/songwriter Emerson Hart explained that he wrote this song after a conversation with his mother.  He was 21 years old and in love with a girl whom he had just proposed to.  His mother told him that he was too young for this and it was the wrong move, so he tried to explain to her that "if you could only see the way she loves me, maybe you would understand".  He then told us that, as it turned out, his mother was right and that his relationship with that girl was a total disaster.

The second to last song was Casual Affair, which is the second track off of Lemon Parade, and they closed with an awesome cover of Led Zeppelin's 1973 hit Dancing Days.  I'm embarrassed to say that I had completely forgotten that this was a Led Zeppelin song.  When I was a teenager, the version that I was the most familiar with was the Stone Temple Pilots cover from the 1995 tribute compilation, Encomium.  I've listened to that cover so many times that I've come to associate it as an STP song.  I couldn't find it on any of Tonic's albums, but it's a cover that they must do pretty often because there's a YouTube video from 2011 that shows the band performing it.  They definitely do the song proud, and it was a great way to close out their set.

Better Than Ezra took the stage next, and I mean no disrespect to the other two bands, but they totally stole the show.  Kevin Griffin is an incredible talent and has a stage presence and an ability to interact with the crowd that few can match.  Almost every rock band has that schtick where they invite the crowd to sing parts of their songs.  I've seen it work well, and I've seen it overdone to the point where it became annoying, but I've never seen it perfected to the degree that Better Than Ezra did last night.  It truly brought the crowd into the show and turned it into a celebration of live music.

They opened the show with Good, which is the band's biggest hit and the one that I remember best from when I was a teenager.  It's a great song that doesn't get as much appreciation as it deserves.  Most breakup songs are angry or depressing, but very few are upbeat in a way that isn't mocking.  The singer isn't glad that his ex is gone, nor is he pining for her to come back to him.  He's at peace with the fact that it's over and reflecting on the good that came from the time they spent together.  It's a refreshing and healthy perspective on a feeling that pretty much everyone in the world has had at some point in their lives, and it's a damn good song.

Next up was Rosealia, which is a great song that I had completely forgotten about.  Like Good, it is off of their 1993 album, Deluxe.  I listened to it a lot back in high school, but the subject of the song is a little difficult to process.  In 2009, Kevin Griffin explained that he wrote the song about a woman who owned a restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he once waited tables.  The lyrics make it pretty obvious that she was in an abusive relationship, so it can be a challenging song to sing along with and feel good unless you either don't know what it's about or can find a way to process that and still have fun singing it.  After the song, Kevin mentioned that they don't often perform Rosealia, but the internet demanded it, so they broke it out tonight.

I had never heard the next song before last night, but it was very awesome.  It's called Grateful, and it was released as a digital single in 2018 and sent to fans who pre-ordered the 30th anniversary vinyl re-release of Deluxe.  It's a beautiful song.  Upon its release, Mr. Griffin said that this song is "about taking a pause and seeing all things in your life that are amazing, despite all the madness in the world."  If that was an important sentiment in the pre-pandemic world, it is definitely one that is much needed in 2021.  The song's available in all the usual places to find digital music, including YouTube, so please give it a listen.

Next, they played A Lifetime, which is another song that I hadn't heard before the show last night.  It was originally released on their 2001 album, Closer, and it was also included on their 2005 release, Before The Robots.  It's a sweet song that has a slight country feel to it.

Throughout the show, Kevin talked to the audience and wished us a happy "Friday Junior" (his name for Thursday), and he went on to explain that he's invented a new day called "Frunday" which combines the joy of Friday with the ominous feeling of Sunday, or something like that.  I can't remember everything that he said, but overall, he's just a really fun dude.  Not an ounce of phoniness or pandering - just a guy who really enjoys what he does.

The fifth song of the night was a very pleasant surprise.  Before they started playing it, Kevin said that this song by James was so often misattributed to Better Than Ezra that they covered it for their Greatest Hits album.  I had no idea that they covered it or that anyone had mistakenly believed it was a Better Than Ezra song, but as soon as he said that it was a James song, I knew they were going to play Laid.  They absolutely knocked it out of the park!  I've been a big fan of James since I saw them in Philadelphia two years ago, but for as incredible as James was that night, I think Better Than Ezra did the song even better.  Laid was also the second song that was performed last night that has a connection to American Pie.  Although it didn't appear in the films or the soundtrack, Laid played during the trailer for both American Pie and American Pie 2.  A cover of Laid by Matt Nathanson finally appeared in the third movie, American Wedding, and it has gone on to become the theme song for the franchise.

Next up was Desperately Wanting, which I think is one of the greatest songs of the 90's.  It was the biggest single off of the band's 1996 album: Friction, Baby.  I don't know what else to say other than this was freaking incredible.  This was the moment during the concert when I took a moment, looked around and tried to soak it all in.  I can never express how truly appreciative I am of the fact that I'm able to experience all of these things.  In a world where so many people are suffering from poverty, health concerns, violence, natural disasters and countless other tragedies, I am fortunate enough to have my health, a full-time job, a home with a warm bed and a refrigerator filled with good things to eat, and enough money left over after the bills are paid to go to concerts, ballgames and movies.  I don't take a single second of this for granted.

In the middle of Desperately Wanting, Kevin Griffin did an imitation of Dave has this documented as a cover of Don't Drink The Water, but that's not really accurate.  It was more of a comedic impersonation that just happened to include the line "don't drink the water".

The next song was a new one that isn't on any album.  Kevin said that they've been calling it Fuzzy, but I got the impression that this may not end up being the title by the time it's released.  Definitely a good song.  In The Blood came next.  This was the opening track on Deluxe, and it a song that embodies the mid 90's and my high school years.  It's a song that has drifted away from my memory over the years, but the song and the memories of that time in my life washed over me from the opening chords.

After In The Blood, Kevin mentioned that we're in the early days of Halloween season, so he's going to play a song with a spooky edge every night over the next few months.  The band then went into a cover of Don't Fear The Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult, or at least as much of it as they knew.  Finally, the band closed their set with a beautiful cover of Elton John's Tiny Dancer, and Kevin led the audience in a sing-along at they headed off stage.  It was an incredible end to one of the best sets I have seen in a very long time.  I wish they had played King Of New Orleans, but aside from that, it was perfect!

The headliner of the night was a band that I've been a fan of for over a quarter century since their first album was released.  In fact, Hints, Allegations and Things Left Unsaid was the first album I ever bought on CD.  I bought it in December 1994 from Boscov's in the Laurel Mall in Hazleton with money I was given in Christmas cards after receiving a CD boombox as a Christmas present.  Don't ask me why I still remember all of that because I have no clue.  Some things just stick in your head and that's one of them.

I still have that same album that I bought 25 years ago.  That thing got a lot of play, especially in the first month or so when it was the only CD in my collection.  I came to find out many years later that this was actually the band's raw basement demo that the record label rushed into production, and the band considers their 1995 self-titled album to be their first record.  Even still, Hints, Allegations and Things Left Unsaid went on to go gold and to produce a single that VH-1 ranked at #42 in their 100 Greatest Songs Of The 90's countdown.  Pretty good for a demo tape, dont'cha think!

This is my second time seeing them in concert, but it's the first time I've seen them perform a full set.  They were the opening act for Collective Soul back in 2007 when I saw them for the first time.  Looking back on my life, that concert was kind of the kickoff to college.  It was on a Wednesday, August 22nd and my first day of class was the following Monday the 27th.  It began a four year period that I think may have saved my life.  It gave me an opportunity not only to broaden my mind, but to believe for the first time in my life that I am good enough.  Although I didn't realize it at the time, it allowed me to spend a lot more time with my grandparents in what would be the final years of their life. It was an important chapter in my life that began with this concert and ended with my bachelors degree, so the opportunity to see Collective Soul again has a few layers of warm and fuzzy nostalgic feelings for me.

The show was every bit as fantastic as I was hoping it would be.  They opened the show with a song I had never heard before called Who Loves.  It was really good, and although he didn't say so, I'm guessing this track will be on an upcoming album.  During the show, someone from the audience shouted for the band to come back to Bethlehem again, and lead singer/songwriter Ed Roland said "We will, brother.  We've got two new albums in the can!", so we know that we've got a lot of awesome stuff to look forward to.

The setlist included Shine from their first album, four songs from their second album (December, The World I KnowGel and Where The River Flows), Precious Declaration from their third album, and two songs from their fourth album (Heavy and Run).  That last track is another connection that my mind has made that links Collective Soul and college.  I had a mix CD in my car that I would sometimes play when I was stressed out from classes to kind of help calm and motivate me, and the first track on that disc was Run.

They mixed in a few songs from their post-2000 albums that I'm not as familiar with, but each of them were pretty awesome songs, including Why Pt.2 from their 2000 album, Blender, Better Now from their 2004 album, Youth, and two songs from their 2019 album, Blood called Right As Rain and Over Me.  I didn't realize they had put out so much material in the 2000's, so I have quite a lot of listening to catch up on.  They also performed a tribute to fellow Georgia icons R.E.M. with an amazing cover of The One I Love.

I'm glad to have gotten to see live music again.  Between the anti-vaxers, the spread of the Delta variant, and the emergence of the new Mu variant, I'm beginning to think we're going to be back on lockdown by Christmas, so I've been trying to get out and do as much as I can while we still can.  They've already cancelled Funfest in Hazleton, which was supposed to be this weekend, and my Dad seems to think that the Bloomsburg Fair is going to end up being cancelled too.  It wouldn't surprise me too much.  All I can do is enjoy as much of the world as I can while it's still here to enjoy, and hope that we don't destroy ourselves any more than we already have.  Hope for everything.  Expect nothing.