Not even freezing temperatures can stop the line of people huddled together in the line outside 20 Monroe Live from stopping every ten to fifteen seconds so someone can grab a photo of the marquee outside the venue. This the latest in a week-long series of nights where temps have danced around the freezing mark, but those standing on Ottawa Street in Grand Rapids this evening do not seem to mind. Though cold, every person will soon be growing increasingly uncomfortable as the temperature inside rises when South Carolina natives NEEDTOBREATHE take the stage.
This is the second Michigan tour stop for NEEDTOBREATHE on their fall 2017 ‘All The Feels’ tour. The group was in Royal Oak, a greater Detroit neighborhood, the night before. 20 Monroe is the newest venue in Grand Rapids and the largest club in the West Michigan area. Tonight’s show has been sold out for weeks and the line outside assures everyone lucky enough to get a ticket showed up.
Greeting the crowd with little more than a “hello” and a “let’s go” at approximately 7:30, Nashville’s Wilder kickstarted the evening with their mildly blend of rock and folk tinged with influence from the greats of Western songwriting. From the back of the room you could tell they were young, looking like recent college grads than young men who’ve earned their strips from the road, but their precision soon proved their looks to be deceiving. The band tapped into that same intangible timelessness that the evening’s headliners had built their brand upon. It wasn’t as polished as what would follow, but Wilder found a groove early in their performance that set the tone for the evening. They were loose, but undeniably in the pocket, living in the moment as if it were the reason they were put on this Earth.
A hungry crowd can be hard to tame. Sold out crowds are good for up and comers because it forced people to show up early in early to ensure a good view of the headliner, but the opener alone is solely responsible for convincing an unfamiliar audience to care. Some do this through constant engagement, cracking jokes or sharing stories in between songs they know most don’t know, but others choose the far riskier endeavor of allowing the music to speak for itself. Wilder chose the latter, often uttering little more than a title and the phrase “Let’s go” on the rare occasion when music didn’t fill the room. Iffy production delayed honest exposure, but by the time the second song hit its chorus the crowd began to bob their heads in near perfect time time the band. By the time the group reached “Coincidental,” a jam heavy track that echoes of rock’s golden era, the roar of open conversation dulled to a murmur as more and more turned their attention to the stage. Wilder created a vibe no one could deny, and it helped to pull the already packed room a bit closer together as hips swayed and toes inches towards the stage.
Exactly thirty-five minutes after arriving on stage Wilder was off, leaving the crowd with a slow burn track that left a lingering impression on the room. The house lights rose temporarily before being lowered once more do the brightest bulbs of NEEDTOBREATHE’s production could flood the room during a brief changeover. The crowd barely budged, in part because they had nowhere to go, while a few souls willing to take their chances with the weather outside shuffled through the masses to take a few drags of the cigarettes they swear they’ll quit. “Don’t worry,” one young man says to another as the brush past me patting their individual packs of smokes against their palms, “there usually aren’t a lot of smokers outside at these shows. We’ll find a spot no problem.” His friend, clearly unaware of where his friend was going to take said smoke break, replied “that doesn’t make it less cold!”
Whether intentional or not, the design of 20 Monroe prevents most from having any phone service whatsoever. This unique situation forced a sense of community in the packed room, though every few minutes various people could be spotted checking their device for the fifth, sixth, or thirteenth time that evening just in case signal had magically returned (it never did). One woman told her friend how she discovered NEEDTOBREATHE while on vacation to celebrity her niece’s engagement, while a man with a full beard and bald head could be overheard Counting aloud the various times he’d seen the band “back before the blew up”. Some things in music change, but those folks will always exist.
When the lights dropped and the crowd went wild every conversation in my immediate vicinity came to a grinding halt. People actually stopped mid-sentenced and turned away from their friends to see the arrival of NEEDTOBREATHE. A few phones went into the air, but for the most part everyone in the room was present. This was not a time to think about or discuss the worries of the world beyond the venue doors, but rather a time to shake the shackles of responsibility for an all too brief moment of community and happiness. This is what people paid to see, what they hired babysitters to attend and why more than one-thousand Michigan residents braved the cold. Everyone made it a point to plan for this night weeks, perhaps even months in advance, and at that moment they were connected to one another, as well as the band on stage, in perfect harmony.
There was a pitch perfect mix of fog and blinding light when NEEDTOBREATHE took the stage. “I Put A Spell On You” boomed through the soundsystem as a single spotlight illuminated a banner featuring the band’s initials next to a tiger. As the band broke into “Don’t Bring That Trouble,” the southern born rock cut from H A R D L O V E, the crowd began moving more than they had at any other time that evening. This movement continued with “Money and Fame,” which included a memorable sax solo, and the crowd fully lost themselves in the moment. Most would assume the band then continued the energy, but instead they took a one-eighty and dove into “No Excuses” to deafening cheers. The power ballad was the first true singalong of the night, but the band didn’t shy away from letting the closing guitar solo steal the spotlight.
“Thanks for coming to the last night of the tour,” vocalist Bear Rinehart declares three songs in. “We’re going to play every song we know for you tonight. You keep singing and we’ll keep playing.” The crowd isn’t done screaming in response before the band is knee deep in another song. Then another. And another. And another. The only breaks come during brief moments of transition where the group wheels out a second piano and later rolls it away, or when things slow for a quieter track that does not require the full band. These intermissions in performance are short, so much so that one could not use any as an excuse to run to the bar or restroom. Though standing, everyone was glued to the floor. They could move only to dance, which some did, but most were too lost in awestruck wonder to do much more than smile and bob their heads. NEEDTOBREATHE didn’t seem to mind.