It started like every other rock show. A venue, a bar, merch tables tucked in corners with high traffic but not in the way. Setup. Dim lighting. But as with every Royal Bliss show, you never quite know what you’re going to get. On November 26th, 2014, what the crowd got was five and a half hours of rock, storytelling, and drinking.
The Pre-Thanksgiving Royal Bliss show is a tradition in the Salt Lake City rock scene. The band has been a fixture on the scene for over a decade, and every year they throw a huge party the night before Thanksgiving. For the past two months, the guys behind radio hits such as Devils and Angels and Here they Come have been on the Rock Avengers tour with Bobaflex and Australian rockers October Rage, and brought both bands with them to the party, also inviting American Hitmen, who are also well known to the Salt Lake scene.
October Rage, who hail from Newcastle, Australia, are a young, hard rocking quartet with a sky-is-the-limit potential. Frontman Nick Roberts exudes a kick-ass-yet-dorky personality on stage, all the while wielding his axe like a weapon as he charts a path through the ever-dangerous US rock scene. As with all rock bands, success is as much to do with charisma and charm as talent, and these four rockers have the goods. While their riffs are nothing yet to write home about, they shine in a way that pulled many a jaded drinker from the back of the venue by the bar to the front of the crowd, proving that the Australian Rock Scene did in fact not die when Sick Puppies made the move from Sydney.
Local blues-rockers American Hitmen were next, bringing an almost 70’s rock vibe to the room as they took the stage in leather biker vests and tight black jeans. They cruised their way through a set that included covers of classic favorites and hard-hitting originals. Three of the members of the band met while serving together in Iraq and that bond they brought back from the desert shows on stage as their set is a give and take of collaboration and solos.
The West Virginia quintet Bobaflex carries themselves as if they just stepped out of a Ramone’s tribute band but their sound is as full and face-melting as any hard rock group’s should be. Their set, which included the single best cover in existence of the classic Sound of Silence, revved the crowd and ended far too quickly.
And then came why the crowd was there as Royal Bliss took the stage.
While not quite metal, Royal Bliss still brings that hard-ass, hard-rock, ass-kicking mentality to the stage in everything they do. The Salt Lake City quintet will have as many as three guitars on stage while blasting their way through their set, and frontman Neal Middleton never met a “Fuck” that he didn’t like to say. Yet, they never take a single moment they spend on stage for granted. Every song break is peppered with thank yous to the crowd, their wives, their girlfriends, and their kids. Songs are belted not just from Neal’s soul, while lead guitarist Taylor Richards channels his inner Jimi Hendrix and bass player Dwayne Crawford provides the hard-hitting heartbeat. Throughout the course of the show, the crowd is taken on a journey that demands whiplash inducing headbanging and tearful cuddling with the significant other at your side.
Despite the well-oiled machine that is a Royal Bliss show, rock music always demands a sacrifice and last night, it was the equipment. Midway through the show, a monitor started to smoke and Neal had to bullshit his way through stories and finally just gave himself over to laughing at the problems and their history as the “Unluckiest band in rock” as he admitted that “Everything Royal Bliss touches, breaks.” He also gave a lecture to the men in the crowd, saying that “if you disrespect women, you aren’t cool, you’re an asshole.” As a woman, I desperately appreciated the comment. He also gave a jab to corporate radio and record labels, hollering out that they shouldn’t have to pay the radio stations to play their music, especially in their hometown. For the record, all of the bands on this tour are independent.
The show ended with Neal coming back on stage in a jacket that only a preacher could love and doing an impromptu three minute “preacher-style” thank you before the band launched into the ever-loved Fine Wine and Champagne before all four bands came on stage for a cover of A Little Help from my Friends and a performance of Royal Bliss’ signature I Was Drunk. Finally, Neal and Taylor stepped into the crowd for a campfire circle rendition of Home.
Those who stayed the course for the entire night, for all five and a half hours, had everything to be thankful for.
You can check out my rather crappy phone photos here. 😉
When we think of bands, we think of longtime friends gathering together in garages and empty warehouses and coffee shops, lugging gear and crowding into minivans with everything they own, setting off on a journey that will bring them not just fame and fortune and the adoration of fans but will also bring them a deeper, wiser understanding of the universe itself. They, after all, do what so many of us cannot. They bring those confusing instruments to life, the ones we all started at as kids, knowing (because our teachers told us so) that the vibrating strings made noise and that noise became music but in the hands of some of our peers, those instruments became oracles of the gods themselves.
When we think of bands, we don’t like to think of success. Success means selling out, right? It means fans who have been there since the beginning challenging every single move they don’t approve of, it means new fans fawning over every single solitary thing ever because they have so much time to make up for. Years have gone by and communities have been formed and fan bases are so hard to break in to and dammit, but dammit, the music has saved a life.
When we think of bands, we think of music. Radio. Record labels. Youtube and Myspace. How often do we stop to think of the individual fan, the individual band member? How often do we stop to think of the story?
This week in the rock world, there’s only been one story on many people’s minds – the split inside the band Sick Puppies. And it’s just the latest in a long line of fascinating stories for these three musicians. After all, how many bands, how many people actually manage to live the “American Dream”? How many of us would be willing to put everything, absolutely everything, on hold as teenagers and take jobs to save up money, all with the sole purpose of leaving our home country and flying all the way across the world to hopefully make it big in the American Rock World? How many? I know people who wouldn’t do that for love. Now imagine being eighteen and doing it for a dream.
And Sick Puppies did just that and came to the states with two numbers in their pocket and their instruments on their backs and somewhere along the way, people started to pay attention. Somewhere along the way, people noticed the heartbeat that Mark Goodwin’s drums provided and they noticed lead singer Shimon Moore’s wild and doofy frontman stylings, and they noticed that soft-spoken bassist Emma Anzai was anything but quiet on stage.
And the story become one of how Youtube videos can go viral and change everything for a band. It became one of how women in rock music are becoming more and more respected. It became one of number one hits, fan communities, and inspiration. And now the story is “What the fuck happened?”
See, when we think of bands, we also don’t like to think of them splitting up. We don’t like to think that these friends who used to keep the neighbors up until all hours of the night could reach a point where working together is torture. We don’t like to think about how if a band is like a marriage, how half of all marriages end in divorce.
But that’s what happened this week when Sick Puppies announced that lead singer Shimon Moore was no longer with the band.
For me, as a fan and as a writer, I find myself wondering what happened. Of course I want to know. I want to know why choices were made and why things couldn’t be worked out, but I find myself wondering these things as a writer. Because, as any writer will tell you, the truth is always found in the spaces between the words.
Why did public statements use words like “time apart” or “instead”? Why were announcements made the way they were? Why did some people become active on the fan boards out of nowhere? And those will be questions that at some point, a smart reporter will ask. I’d hope.
But more than those questions, it’s the story that calls to me. Sick Puppies, a group known as much for songs like You’re Going Down and War as they are for entreating challenges to the world in softer tunes like Maybe and Run, I wonder where the story will emerge.
As a music fan, I hope it won’t be through social media snipping. The trio has been reasonably professional throughout the split, but it’s clear there are deep seeded hurts that are starting to bubble to the surface (as now-former lead singer Shimon Moore’s facebook post about the situation made clear.) There’s a part of me that hopes it even won’t be through any blogging sites or interviews (although I’m always available to give them). But, instead through the songs that are inspired by the next chapter of this band.
Because when we think of bands, we have to think of their stories and what the music is telling us. Rock is a culture of blood, sweat, and tears. And even bands at the top of the charts, the ones who so often feel like they are cranking out the same riffs and the same lyrics over and over again, even they have their own messy story to tell. They’ve sat in rooms and pondered the end of the very life that feeds them. They’ve walked away from love, from stability. All to get on a bus and go from town to town.
Over the next few months, fans are going to start to be able to say the signs were there. And they were. See, that’s the thing with music: it’s part of the soul and our souls direct us. Or, if you prefer, that instinct tells us something is up. Because in the end, it won’t just be the story they write that stays with us. It’ll be the story that Emma tells on stage with her bass every night and the tales that Mark bangs out on his drums and the webs that are spun in whatever new project Shim finds himself doing.
Speaking as a fan: I hope it’s a good one because sometimes, new blood keeps a band alive but sometimes, the story just has to end.