By Adam Waldman
History was made at the Woodstock Festival 50 years ago in the summer of 1969. Contrary to what many think, this indelible moment in American history did not take place in Woodstock, NY. It took place about an hour and a half southwest in the magical, bucolic setting of Bethel. You can feel the history wash over you when you visit the serene grounds, and even more so when you attend a concert at one of the greatest venues in the world.
On a steamy July night, the fans in attendance weren’t naked hippies sliding down muddy hills, but they were no less enthusiastic. Rightfully so. For the first time ever, Shinedown (one of the elite bands in rock today) was about to light up the Bethel sky in more ways than one.
As darkness fell upon the rolling hills of Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the palpable tension rose to a crescendo as the instrumental music faded into Shinedown’s theatrical dramatic entrance. The curtain fell…Zach Myers’ riff rang out in the night… Barry Kerch’s drums exploded in unison with a pyrotechnics display that harkened back to the bombastic arena days of ‘80s hard rock. From the fourth row, I felt the searing heat on my face and the pressure in my chest from the explosion. I can only imagine what Kerch felt as his golden dreadlocks danced amongst the flames, or Brent Smith as he nimbly walked the flaming platform with stuntman like confidence.
Within the first 30 seconds of the show, you just knew that this wasn’t going to be a typical modern era rock concert. And it certainly wasn’t going to be like anything that I’ve experienced at Bethel Woods before. A half century after the landmark festival that will live on in the annals of music history, a perfect storm took place. One of my favorite modern rock bands was about to take me on an extended musical journey at my favorite venue.
Early on in the show, Smith, who was as much ringmaster as frontman, took a show-of-hands survey to see how many people were seeing Shinedown for the first time. My hand went up, as did thousands of others. After all, this was the first time that the band had played anywhere close to this area in the near decade that I’ve lived here.
Unlike the sex and drugs that were a part of the fabric of the original Woodstock Festival, this show was purely about rock and roll (though it could be compared to a euphoric drug experience because it was virtually flawless in every way possible). This show made it feel like seeing Shinedown in the future will be the equivalent of a first-time heroin user “chasing the dragon” (an experience that I can only relate to through Hollywood’s cinematic lens).
Shinedown has the unique ability to touch your heart with tender beauty one moment, and inspire you to throw your hands in the air with fists of rage the next. Whether singing along to soul penetrating poetic ballads like “I’ll Follow You,” or jumping up and down to high-octane hits like “Diamond Eyes (Boom-Lay Boom-Lay Boom),” Smith had the crowd in the palm of his hands. Not only is he one of the greatest singers of this generation, he is also one of the best showmen that I have ever experienced in a live setting. Building upon the foundation laid by the frontmen of yesteryear, Smith has deftly taken showmanship into the modern era.
Gen Xers like me nostalgically long for the days of burning our thumbs while holding up lighters to illuminate arenas during power ballads. Many of us bemoan that fact that smartphones have taken away from the concert experience. Smith found a way to brilliantly blend nostalgia and modern technology when he encouraged the crowd to light up the sky with their phones. Looking back at the sea of lights from the stage with awe, this was the first time that I actually appreciated phones at a concert. It was truly magical.
Normally, you don’t spend much time looking away from the stage at a concert to check out the crowd, but you do when the band virtually becomes a part of the audience. What seemed like an abrupt, spur-of-the-moment decision, was actually a calculated plan for the band to venture off into the crowd to give the people on the lawn a taste of the vantage point of those near the front. With the members of the band perched on their own stages, Smith once again worked his magic in engaging the audience with sincerity and levity.
You can tell that Shinedown has incredible musical chemistry by listening to their songs, but you can’t fully appreciate the personal chemistry until experiencing them in concert. Smith has the commanding presence of an accomplished Broadway actor, and can be intensely serious at times. But he is also incredibly humble and gregarious.
When the band members were finally settled on their stages towards the back, Smith addressed the crowd, and shared what playing the hallowed grounds meant to him and the band. Although the set throughout the tour is fairly similar from show to show, they do throw in some songs to personalize the experience. On this night, the chosen songs intentionally tapped into the peace and love that was the theme of the Woodstock Festival (“If You Only Knew” and “How Did You Love”). It was a memorable moment, but not nearly as unforgettable as Smith discussing how the band spent their afternoon reliving the experience that so many had 50 years ago…
Because of his charismatic, theatrical persona, it was hard to tell if the story that he and the band shared about their day was true or not. I’d like to believe that it was because it makes things so much more interesting. Although they (regretfully) didn’t take the time to tour the incredible museum on the grounds, they did experience what Woodstock was like by rolling around naked in the fields earlier in the day. A stark contrast to the expectations that you would have based on the businesslike stage wear of Smith and bassist/keyboardist Eric Bass. It was easier to imagine the slightly sinister Myers (who wore a bandana around his face to start the show) or the dreadlocked Kerch rolling naked in the fields, but in true Shinedown form, they showed “Unity” in nudity.
Sometimes you can’t tell if what you’re experiencing is all part of the show, or if there are true moments of spontaneity, but this moment seemed truly genuine. When Myers playfully mocked Smith for screwing up the first verse of a song, Smith took it in stride. He understood that he had it coming for snapping a towel into Myers’s backside earlier in the show.
Though Smith clearly has a playful side, he also has the gravitas to deliver a message to a crowd in the same manner as a motivational speaker or spellbinding preacher. I’ve never been particularly religious, but I’d gladly be a member of any congregation that was led by Smith. In these divisive times, he offered a message of hope, unity, and peace before the band launched into one of their most recent hits, “Get Up.” By the time that the song was played towards the end of the show, I thought that I couldn’t possibly think any more of him than I already did. I was wrong.
It’s easy for a frontman to let the adulation of fans go to his head, but Smith showed true humility and deference to the unsung hero of the band, Bass (whose contributions to the writing process are not generally recognized by fans). The emotion that he showed when speaking about his bandmate (and friend) was genuine. As was his inspirational message to the audience. Without singing a note, Smith made us all want to squeeze every ounce of juice that we can out of life.
It’s hard to encapsulate a performance like this in one word, but if I had to choose, that word would be “Brilliant.” I’ll leave it at that, just like Shinedown did during one of the most memorable concerts of the many that I’ve seen in my lifetime. The fact that it took place at my favorite venue just made it that much more special.