If there was a single moment where Rise Against came alive -- really, sincerely began to lose their minds, feeding off the audience's vast stores of energy -- it happened late in the game. The crowd had been decidedly awestruck after opener the Gaslight Anthem's performance, and who knows, maybe the Rise Against dudes were giving the kids a break, biding their time before letting loose with a barrage of punk anthems. When they finally did go apeshit, somewhere between "Satellite" and "Wait for Me," the audience responded in kind.
The night was theirs to lose. Earlier in the evening, at the decidedly un-rock hour of 6 p.m., a thick line of fans stretched around the block wearing enough Rise Against T-shirts to fill a moving van. This was the kind of old-school band adoration you might expect at a Van Halen concert, circa '84. Judging by the crowd's excitement, lead singer Tim McIlwrath could have executed kittens onstage later that night, and the kids would have loved him still.
Gainesville, Florida hardcore titans Hot Water Music played an early set that was memorable only for its time capsule-like novelty. This was the sound of Florida hardcore back in the '90s, and Hot Water Music -- one of the premier acts of the era -- has changed very little in the decades since.
The Gaslight Anthem however, was another monster entirely. Merging elements of rootsy '90s punk (see: Social Distortion) and its New Jersey homeland (see: Bruce Springsteen's "woah-a-oh's" from "Thunder Road"), this band has added varied elements to the Warped Tour sound that's become so hackneyed. Singer Brian Fallon was at times a dead ringer for Archers of Loaf's Eric Bachmann, and, like that North Carolina outfit, is unafraid of throwing the occasional twangy vocal in front of the mountains of fuzzed-out guitars. "Here Comes My Man" and "Keepsake" were especially rousing numbers, likely leading many in the audience to wonder if Rise Against would be able to top it.
Well, Gaslight Anthem didn't have the light show or long-familiar songs that the headliners did, and, better songcrafting aside, the spectacle of Rise Against pretty much trounced the openers' collective stage presence. The stage projections showed videos on four giant panel screens, featuring all sorts of odd topical stuff -- is that footage from the Arab Spring uprising? Who are those people crying in jail cells? -- while the band, dressed in all black (naturally), tore through a mix of old favorites and more recent fare.
"Survivor Guilt" began the set, establishing themes that would continue throughout the night. Namely: politically conscious lyricism, frequent audience participation (more than once did singer McIlwrath hold the mic out over the crowd mid-song), and blistering, catastrophic guitar and drum chops.
This is a band at the apex of its abilities. Not a hair was out of place, figuratively speaking. The stops and starts, the long vocal howls, the grinding hardcore riffs coming from the mass of amps: it all sounded exactly as it did on studio albums. Spontaneity was not a part of the festivities last night, but no matter -- the crowd was there to pump their fists, hunch their shoulders and raise their beers in tribute -- and any extended jams would have seriously compromised that.
"The reason we keep coming back to the Bluebird, the Ogden, the Fox, the Fillmore... IS BECAUSE OF YOU!" McIlwrath shouted between songs. As if the folks in attendance didn't already love him enough. As the concert stretched beyond the hour-and-a-half mark, the nascent mosh pit began engulfing bystanders near the front of the stage. Nothing dangerous, mind you. This was the best-behaved crowd at a hardcore show in recent memory.
The band wound through audience favorites like "Disparity by Design," "Re-Education (Through Labor)" before McIlwrath slowed it down a bit and pulled out his acoustic guitar. Weirdly enough, the memorable monologue from the first episode of HBO series The Newsroom is piped in through the PA system. Who knew Jeff Daniels (who plays protagonist Will McAvoy, and of course was most memorable in Dumb and Dumber) would make a guest appearance, even in spirit?
"Here's the part where the singer goes out and tells you to vote," McIlwrath said towards the end of the night. The crowd, a sweaty mass of mostly young and Caucasian bodies, was just about delirious in their enjoyment. This was an army ready to follow the singer into whatever battle he'd lead them towards. "It's punk rock to vote. Why: because they are counting on you not voting. So fuck up their expectations," he added. "That's punk rock." If Colorado hinges on the youth vote, Rise Against may deserve credit for tipping the election.
Personal Bias: Having spent years playing in Florida indie bands, I thought I had heard every incarnation of hardcore there was. Then the Gaslight Anthem upended everything for these tired ears.
Random Note: All but one of the T-shirts at Rise Against's merch table were black, white or grey. What do they have against earth tones? Or pastels?
By the Way: Rise Against has a strong Colorado connection, due to the fact that the band recorded 2003's Revolutions Per Minute and 2011's Endgame at the Blasting Room in Ft. Collins.