The leaves outside The Stache are finally starting to show signs of the fall. Any doubts this is true are proving false by the multiple cell phone tilted just right by teens outside the 400 capacity venue in Grand Rapids on Monday, September 11. They’re waiting in line to see State Champs headline a varied, but nonetheless linear pop-punk show supported by Homesafe, Sleep On It, and Bearings. The cool weather outside will feel warm once they experience the chill of the inside, but for now they’re preoccupied with their phones. A staffer tells me he saw a few of them in line when he arrived at noon. The show won’t begin until seven.
When that time finally comes, a modestly filled room expanding by the minute with walk up sales is greeted by the immediate and undeniable talent of Canada’s best kept secret. Bearings are a young band toeing that line between pop punk more traditional alternative music a la the dawn of the new millennium. Their opening song, “Petrichor” touches on the essential genre cornerstones within its opening lines:
”Sometimes I find myself in a crowded room / with good friends and a feeling this will end too soon / some things just end too soon”
It may seem simple, but it captures the essence of this genre. In 25 words vocalist Doug Cousins captures what it is to recognize the relentless movement of time just as you unknowingly experience the last precious moments of youth. The audience recognized this and responded by putting the same phones that had filled their time previously directly into their pockets. Bearings, having instantly passed whatever litmus test young audiences might hold for bands they don’t immediately recognize, proceeded to command every inch of the corner stage on which they stood. Few seemed to know the words, but the look on their faces told you they were committing the band’s name to memory.
In the moments before Chicago’s Sleep On It hit the stage there was a sing along in the crowd. As the band completed a quick soundcheck guitarist/vocalist Teddy Horansky sang the opening lines of Smash Mouth‘s hit song “All Star”. It didn’t take long for the now mostly filled room to begin singing along. They cheered in doing so. The crowd, most caught somewhere between their teen years and adulthood, were ready for the night to continue. Sleep On It, perhaps unsurprisingly, felt the same way.
“This is our sixth time here in a year, what’s up?” The crowd roars in response. Sleep On It have somehow found a way to make the drive to Grand Rapids – 2.5 hours with a lot of luck from their home in Chicago – in the midst of a seemingly nonstop schedule. Somehow the band managed to record their debut full length in the midst of all this, but tonight they will play just two new songs. Those are “Distant,” which debuted online earlier this month, and the title track “Overexposed.” Many in the crowd have already learned the words to the former and happily sing along, but the latter was new to virtually everyone. Safely nestled deep in the setlist between time tested fan favorites the track went over impressively well. The song showcases the group’s continued growth more than “Distant” without giving away all the surprises their new record will contain. Fans appear to appreciate the song, offering their approval by bobbing their heads to the music, but they come alive as soon as the band returns to the tracks everyone seems to know by heart.
The changeover between Sleep On It and Homesafe is the first time most notice the rising temperature of The Stache. On the coldest winter nights this small space can feel like a furnace, so you can probably imagine what a packed show held at the tail end of summer feels like after people start moving. I myself first notice the heat when I slip on the wet floor and nearly spill a $7 hard cider on a group of girls trying to capture a snapchat filter on the stagehands, then again when a young man wearing a shirt he appears to have torn the sleeves off of himself just moments prior passes by and like a slug leaves a moist, sweat-induced impression on my red shirt. I walk outside to catch my breath and breathe clean air only to find cigarettes are still cool in certain pop-punk circles, and quickly retreat back into the increasingly damp venue with hopes for an early start.
My dreams come true not long after when Homesafe take the stage to a mixture of excitement and curious applause. It’s clear the band is not as familiar to most as Sleep On It had been, but they don’t seem to mind. Their music leans into the punk side of the pop-punk mix, offering an incredibly loud journey through the mind of vocalist Ryan Rumchaks. I’m unfamiliar with the group, but I am legitimately overwhelmed by their presence on stage. The sound guy beside me is trying to temper the volume, but someone associated with the band kindly explains that they prefer to be as loud as possible. This approach to performance harms the clarity of the vocals, but when a group is playing music as emotionally-driven as that of Homesafe the message of the song is still felt. Hell, it reverberates through you whether you like it or not (I did).
A full thirty minutes pass between Homesafe exiting the stage and State Champs beginning their set. In this time kids once again pour out the front door to suck cancer sticks and feel the momentary relief of a cool September night. In joining them I overhear those in attendance discussing the songs they hope they will play, as well as the songs heard last time the band was in town. It seems very few are seeing State Champs for the first time tonight, and if they are it’s only because their “dumb” parents wouldn’t allow them to see them sooner. One guy, who tells me it’s his birthday, claims to have brought three friends to the show so that this night – this crazy night filled with sweaty strangers and pop-punk music – could double as his party.
The crowd files back in with minutes to spare, and many begin trying to slip in between those standing still to get a bit closer to the stage. The lights come down right at 9:45 and State Champs emerge moments later to rapturous applause. The hour-long performance that follows celebrates the band’s entire catalog, but there is special attention paid to the songs from their 2015 album, Around The World And Back. “This is one of our last shows on this album cycle,” vocalist Derek DiScanio tell the crowd a few songs in. “When we wrap this tour we’re going to make our third album, and once that is done we’ll be back here once more.” The crowd goes wild.
When the band digs a bit deeper into their catalog I find myself with a front row seat to a moment I would not believe if I had not seen it with my own two eyes. I see a young woman, no older than 18, begin taking numerous Snapchat story updates as one particular song plays. She captures three or four clips then hands her phone to a friend and momentarily disappears. Her friend takes the phone, points it back at the stage, and begins recording again. Just as this happens the girl who vanished moments prior appears on stage and dives into the audience precisely where her friend is standing. She is so on the mark that she knocks her phone out of her friend’s hand while diving, which in turn makes both of them fall to the ground. The people nearby help them up, and the girl – having just assured herself her phone screen was not cracked – posts the stage dive update. I didn’t see the final clip, but I assume it was epic.
State Champs play on and fans hang on every word. What many do not realize is that the show they are watching is one that could only be produced by a band with as many miles traveled as State Champs. Where many artists may think preparation for a live show begins and ends with the setlist, the members of State Champs have clearly poured a lot of time and thought to every beat of their performance. They’ve even gone so far as to provide the guy running the lights with a song-by-song “cheat sheet” of how they prefer to be lit (something my photographer tells me he wishes more artists would do, if only to make his life easier). In a world where many get by doing the bare minimum State Champs proved here as they had in numerous cities prior that they are willing to put in the work needed to succeed. On this night, those efforts paid off.
Sleep On It