Teens and members of the Myspace generation gathered Sunday Night in West Michigan to celebrate the debut album from Secondhand Serenade.
“Hi. I just landed at 7:05.” Seated, Ronnie Winter briefly recounts what amounts to a cross city race to appear on stage at The Stache just seven minutes late for his 7:30 set time. The lights in the room do not dim as Winter begins singing a song told from the perspective of a grandfather discussing the facts of life with his grandson. The crowd applauds as Winter introduces cause for the evening, the 10th anniversary of Secondhand Serenade’s debut album, Awake, before telling those in attendance this is his first solo acoustic tour in a career that now spans fourteen years. “I was little nervous, but then I figured ‘why not – this is how I write everything anyways.’”
This isn’t Winter first time in Grand Rapids nor in his first in this venue. As the frontman for Red Jumpsuit Apparatus (RJA) Winter has toured the world several times overs. His own rise to fame began 11 years ago when RJA rose through the music ranks on the strength of their debut single “Face Down”. One would assume this song closes Winter set, but instead it arrives third with no introduction. It’s clear he’s not the guy he was when that song empowered victims of domestic abuse all over world, but the conviction in his delivery tells us the song still holds a special place in his heart. “Yup,” he declares with a slight hint of laughter in his voice as the once popular song comes to an end. “I’m that guy.”
Winter gives the crowd a bit more insight to his activity in recent years, particularly becoming a father and taking time away from the road. His head is largely shaven, with just the dark brown hair atop his head remaining and pull just to the left of his clean shaven face. He rarely makes eye contact with the crowd while performing, choosing instead to be lost in song. The house lights remain on, but the noise that typically accompanies such brightness in any room is hushed as the diverse cast of past, future, and current ‘scene’ kids give quiet attention to the man on stage. He plays a lot of new material, an act he swears is not normal for live performances, and in doing so touches on themes of love and redemption that have become his songwriting signature. It’s an illuminating look at an often reserved individual, and the crowd’s readiness to listen to whatever he has to share is rewarded time and time again.
The wait between sets is not long. Most haven’t had time to order a second drink before the man of the hour makes his presence known. Dressed in a black leather jacket, black t-shirt, and black baseball cap (turned backwards), John Vesely enters The Stache seconds before he takes the stage. One eager fan greets him and awkwardly introduces his girlfriend. Vesely, ever the gentleman, stops and chats for a moment before saying something to his wife seated behind the merch table and moved through the crowd. He repeats the cause for celebration and performance before announcing he too will be sharing new material as the evening progresses. The crowd cheers.
For many in the room, the music of Awake served as one of their first online music discoveries. Secondhand Serenade rose out of first wave MySpace music fandom in a time when Facebook was still exclusively available to those with a a college email address. The songs on Awake were first shared on their Myspace profiles like not so subtle messages to your most recent crush. They were, for lack of a less cliche description, the soundtrack to young love for a generation coming of age just as the world around them was becoming interconnected. Those in the crowd were heard murmuring of long forgotten screen names, learning html through profile customization, and – inevitably – how much crazier life has gotten since that time.
As Vesely moves through his most beloved release you can feel those in the room becoming lost in the fog of nostalgia. Though their eyes are focused on the stage and their voices singing along with every line, each and every person in attendance is mentally in another place. They are remembering who they were when Awake first entered their lives, as well as the romantic entanglements that started and ended with that album serving as the soundtrack. Maybe Awake was the only thing that made someone feel less alone, or perhaps it provided the song that would become ‘the song’ for a couple that has long since separated. Whatever the case, there is no denying the rollercoaster of emotions moving through the room. So much so, in fact, that many can be seen shedding tears as the song(s) that mattered most to them are played.
The highlight of the evening comes when Vesely’s wife, Veronica, joins him on stage. The pair share a story of Vesely losing his ring and the minor drama that ensued before telling those in attendance how they met in Nashville five years prior. This, coupled with the content of the songs this evening, has every couple in the room caught in their feels. The slow interlocking of fingers can be seen occurring throughout the room as the couple on stage talks, forcing each pair in the crowd to a bit closer to one another. The Veselys then perform “Maybe I’m Just Drunk,” a country tinged ballad that finds the recent newlyweds swapping verses in a tale of hopeful heartache. It is distinctly different, yet thematically appropriate for the evening at hand. As the crowd’s response dies down the pair announce plans for a debut EP, as well as Secondhand Serenade’s recent rejoining to the Glassnote Records family. People go crazy, excited by the news that plenty of new material will soon be in their lives, and then the show continues. More new music is played before Vesely closes with one of Secondhand Serenade’s biggest songs. The crowd sings just a bit louder this time, as if using the song to say farewell to the person they were when they first heard it once more. After that, the doors open and the cool autumn night air rolls in. The magic empties from the room just as quickly as it appeared, and the crowd follows not long after.
Though the audience was never so loud they drowned out the man on stage and there was still room left in the back corners of the club Vesely commanded the room with his signature brand of deeply personal narratives of broken hearts and remorse until the very end. Nostalgia cash grabs disguised as decade celebrations are a dime a dozen in music today, but tonight felt different. The songs people wanted to hear were present, but the emphasis was on the now. For a man whose career is built on getting lost on moments already long gone Vesely is looking to the future and encouraging others to do the same. He’s grateful, as is Winter, but they each know life keeps going. Their past success propelled them to this point, but it takes more than flash in the pan affection from the masses to maintain a career in music. They will both wake up tomorrow and find there will be another song to write or another show to play. This is the life they wanted. This is the work they knew they would need to put in. This is what they signed up for, and after tonight I am convinced neither Winter or Vesely would choose any other path.