It’s an interesting paradox when you feel like you’ve been a fan of a band since their inception. When they finally get their big break and make it into the “mainstream”, do you remain an adamant fan or jump ship, wishing to go back to the “good ole days” where you felt like knowledge of the band was a shared secret amongst a select few people. Maybe it’s just me, but when those bands come into their own and get the recognition they are so deserving of, I imagine it’s like the feeling a dad has when their kid rides away on down the sidewalk on their bicycle for the first time without their training wheels on. It’s one of those rites of passage in life that I imagine are ingrained in the minds of a countless number of people.
This past Thursday night I had that kind of engrossing experience when I witnessed Needtobreathe’s first of two nights playing at Nashville’s famed “Mother Church”, the Ryman Auditorium, in what can only be described as what rock and roll was meant to be. Displaying some of the strongest musical chops to grace the newly refurbished stage, the boys from Possum Kingdom, South Carolina, left every member of the packed-into-pews audience spellbound, seamlessly moving from heart-pounding, foot-stomping rock and roll to hear-the-pin-drop-quiet ballads.
The night’s opener, Ben Rector, probably deserves a post all his own after captivating the audience as the opener, with his up tempo brand of piano-driven pop rock. It’s been said that going to the Ryman for a show can be a worship experience all its own, and with Rector as the worship leader for the evening, you might as well have been in a church in the Deep South, swaying to-and-fro, hands clapping and toes tapping along to every ebb and flow of the music. There may or may not have been hands raised from some of the more charismatic of the night’s patrons. Rector along with his backing band mixed in some of his best songs from his two albums, but probably brought the most joy to the audience with his superbly original take on Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”. The video he recorded of the song was actually made back in January, prior to the queen of soul’s untimely death, and his version at the Ryman could not have seemed any more apropos.
So much could be said about any one of Needtobreathe’s songs on that uncommonly warm February night, and every song seemed like a highlight in and of itself. Their opening rendition of “Oohs and Aahs” could not have been any stronger, with the typewriter lighting in the background spelling out “The Reckoning”. My comment to my friend Josh who was at the concert helping run lighting for the band was “now THAT is how you start a rock concert!”
Perhaps the highlight of the night was Needtobreathe bringing out a string quartet and playing an all acoustic version of “More Time” midway through their set. It was another wrinkle to the live repetoire that they have developed over the last eight years, and for the fans who had been with them since the very beginning, it was a poignant tribute to the band’s past and a signal of just how far they have come in a short period of time.
Discussing the February 23 show would be incomplete without mentioning the near-perfect encore of the 1-2-3 punch of “Something Beautiful”, “The Reckoning” and “Slumber”. The crowd favorite “Something Beautiful” brought any late adopters to their feet before the band put forth a convincingly gritty rendition of “The Reckoning”. Transitioning from that to “Slumber” showcased both Needtobreathe’s range and their famous propensity for bringing crowds to a hushed silence at the end of a show, as they unplugged their instruments and all gathered at the front of the teakwood stage to put their stamp on what was the best show of theirs I have seen out of the 15 or so I have seen in the past.
By the time they reached the climactic conclusion of “I wanna sing like we used to / I wanna dance like we want to / Come on darlin’ open up your eyes” the crowd had responded in kind, with eyes open wide to the wonder of the way live music can transform you. And in a lot of ways, Needtobreathe had undergone the same transformation that night, going from the boys they had been playing at fraternity parties throughout the Southeast to men with a commanding presence on one of music’s grandest stages.