8/5/11, at Musikfest Cafe at ArtsQuest Center in Bethlehem, PA
Musikfest isn't usually my cup of tea. It's a big, over-a-week-long festival in downtown Bethlehem, Pennsylvania where musical acts of every size and caliber perform throughout the week. There isn't much to do in this area of eastern PA, so Musikfest ends up being a pretty big deal. Occasionally, an act will perform that is sponsored by a local radio station or something that sheds a little light admist the beer-guzzling festiviites. In the past, this has been Jars of Clay with Sixpence None The Richer, ZOEgirl, and now, thanks to WordFM, Needtobreathe.
This is the first Musikfest where the Steel Stacks venues have been open and a part of Musikfest. Bethlehem Steel was a huge industry long ago and the gigantic factory stacks - which served as the backdrop of "China" for the opening action sequence in 2009's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - and it makes a great location for a hot new venue. In the same building as Musikfest Cafe is an artsy indie film theater, an eatery, gift shop, and a little lobby stage. The Musikfest Cafe itself is a slick looking setup where the stage overlooks the iconic stacks set behind the performers and a balcony allows patrons to grab a table and eat while watching the show (the setup isn't too different than Philadelphia's World Live Cafe). However, for those concerned, Musikfest Cafe is also a bar, sponsored by Yuengling - so you can also expect to see the beer brand's name in big, glowing lights near one end of the room.
Needtobreathe was performing this day as a one-off during their run as the opening act for Taylor Swift's big summer arena tour. Because of that, the band was especially jazzed about performing a full set in an intimate setting. It was a packed house, with roughly a 1,000 people in attendance this evening. An opening act, which shared the band's flair for southern rock, got things started. Oddly named Ponderosa (like the restaurant?!), the band played well, but their music didn't really stand out from others in the classic rock genre. The evening had gotten off to a late start and Ponderosa was just making the wait for the main attraction that much longer.
When it came time for Needtobreathe to take over, the band launched their set with a brand new track from their forthcoming fourth album, The Reckoning. I didn't catch the title, but musically, it worked well as an opener; it was a little surprising to hear the guys open with something unfamiliar to their fans. However, the energy mounted as the foursome (with a fifth as piano accompaniment), continued on with "Girl Named Tennessee," one of the standout songs from their previous release, The Outsiders. The band was clearly soaking in the intimate setting. Things continued strongly into the title track, "The Outsiders," before vocalist Bear Rinehart took a moment to address his Bethlehem audience. He briefly talked about the band's excitement for their new album and the difficulties and triumphs of working on such a project, and introduced the album's latest single, "Drive All Night." The upbeat song was followed by the first ballad of the evening, "Stones Under Rushing Water," which the guys gave a slow, building intro into the track. The slower vibe continued with "Washed By The Water," which was met with enthusiastic applause when the recognizable piano melody began. As they have done before, Needtobreathe then mixed in The Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" before wrapping up the song. With that, another fan favorite and one of the best Needtobreathe songs to hear live, "Prisoner," pumped up the performance energy once again. Bear followed the song with some fan appreciation, admitting that the past year has been overwhelming and exciting for them, and that because of the big tour with huge crowds and a short set time, they were loving this performance even more (and that it was "good" for them to get this kind of performance setting every now and then). Another new song, the first Christian radio single off The Reckoning, "Slumber," was next, featuring Bear's brother Bo on harmonica (in addition to his usual guitar duties). Afterwards, Bear paused again to talk a bit and thank the audience for coming out. Fans cheered upon hearing the sounds of "Something Beautiful," which the band followed with "Lay 'Em Down," before closing with the rousing "Let Us Love." For the finale, Bear didn't have to do much coaxing to get the crowd singing along, and the guys took the song out in their usual energetic and anthemic fashion.
Bear then said that, despite bands were playing outdoors and such (and you could still sort of hear Stone Temple Pilots performing on a stage outside in the background), he still wanted to close with one last song, performed acoustically without the aid of a single amp or speaker. The southern rock quintet made their way off stage and over to the bar, where they stood and performed an acoustic rendition of a brand new song titled "A Place Only Love Can Go." As the song began to wind down, Bear broke into a portion of Ben E. King's hit, "Stand By Me" to end the night. It was a solid end to another great set from Needtobreathe.
Whether they're opening for a major mainstream act or serving as the evening's main course, Needtobreathe is among the best bands in the business today and they consistently deliver an excellent live performance. Definitely don't miss these guys if they roll into your area anytime.
-- John DiBiase, 8/18/11