Concert Review: State Champs at O2 Ritz Manchester 11/3/17
The community that forms around music is one of the things that makes it so special to me. No matter your gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, wherever you come from or whoever you are, art, and in particular music, is our one great unifier. Music doesn’t discriminate. Music doesn’t hate. Music doesn’t tear you down, but instead it builds you up. It creates friendships that span the length and breadth of countries, continents, even planets. Being packed into a hot, sweaty room full of other misfits and outsiders who don’t know where they fit into this world any more than you do is an incredibly liberating experience- everyone is a bit messed up their own way, but none of it matters when the music starts, the bass rumbles into life and you feel the first vibrations run up your spine and through your chest. Everyone is equal in that moment, everyone feels the same emotions and there’s an overwhelming sense of belonging and community between everyone in the room, best friends and complete strangers alike. It’s a community with a bond so strong in that instant that nothing more powerful can be found anywhere else in the world.
These were the thoughts that kept chasing each other around my mind as I sat, huddled under a duvet with one of my best friends and two complete strangers who would soon become friends, outside the doors to the O2 Ritz in Manchester on the crisp spring morning of March 11th, right at the front of the queue to see State Champs perform with As It Is and Northbound later that evening. The queue behind me was made up of so many old friends it was staggering: people I had first met mere months ago at another As It Is show, who I knew already knew me better than most other people in my life, all chatting, laughing and singing together as one. We had arrived at that gig as strangers, and left as friends, and now, here we all were again, back again, queueing from ridiculously early on in the day just to be close to the band that had brought us all together to begin with. In an atmosphere like that, it is impossible for the hours to not fly by, and indeed they did, in a whirlwind of disturbingly confessional games of Never Have I Ever; exchanging stories from gigs we’d been to in the intervening months since we were last together; many, MANY trips to McDonalds for varyingly healthy meals and toilet breaks; trying not to squeal too embarrassingly loudly when the guys in As It Is arrived at 2:15pm, -fashionably late as ever- and were greeted by their friends in Roam, which elicited many awestruck screams and shy selfies from the crowd that had gathered around the van; and singing along loudly (and badly!) to a playlist of classic pop punk, so loudly in fact that our eardrum-bursting rendition of ‘Dear Maria, Count Me In’ by All Time Low actually woke up the guys in State Champs, who were trying to get some much needed sleep in the tour bus that was parked outside the doors to the venue! The soundtrack of the day was a warm, happy blur of hugs, laughter, music and comradery against the elements, and produced so many memories that I will treasure for many years to come. I had missed this feeling and some of these people so much, that being back with them was like taking a huge breath of fresh air when you didn’t even realise that you had been holding your breath. Sometimes it’s not all about the music: sometimes the community that surrounds it is just as important in making your concert experience meaningful and memorable.
By the time doors were about to open, however, after I had spent almost eight hours camped out on the icy pavement, (some of my friends had been there for eleven!), the air around us fizzed with an almost electrical energy, fuelled by anticipation and fever pitch excitement, the soft chatter that had floated over the crowd for the majority of the day rising to a loud, frantic hum, occasionally giving way to bursts of song that were quickly but only temporarily quenched by the mildly irritated security guards patrolling the doors! When the doors were finally pulled open, tantalisingly slowly, the crowds burst forwards and, thrusting their tickets hurriedly under the security guards’ noses, we all cascaded like a torrent of white water into the huge expanse of the room, walking as fast as we could without actually running towards the line of VIP ticket holders who already lined the barrier, having been let in an hour before. While the O2 Ritz may not be my favourite Manchester venue, I couldn’t help but feel the history and character of the room hit me as soon as I walked in. From the original springy floor to the delicate cornicing that ringed the balcony above our heads, it was easy to believe that this was the same room where my grandparents had once come dancing, more than fifty years ago. As the room began to slowly fill up around me, however, the buzz and chatter brought me sharply down to earth, as the girls around me began to squeal and point excitedly at the shape of a man, huddled over a beer on the balcony, and as my focus shifted from the intricate mouldings to the shadowy figure suspended in the semi-darkness above them, I saw that it was Andy Westhead, guitarist of As It Is! Without conscious direction, a cheer rose up from the crowd around me that I soon joined in with, a jubilant jeer of ‘We love you Andy, we do, we love you Andy, we do, we love you Andy we do, oh, Andy we love you!’. Laughs and screams joined the din as Andy waved, half embarrassed, half proud, from his regal perch, as we all waved back, still laughing hysterically, infected with the wonderful sickness of shared concert euphoria.
We barely had time to bathe in our excitement, however, as because of the compressed set times that come with playing a major clubbing venue on a Saturday night, the first support band of the night, Northbound, took to the stage just as the room had reached its maximum capacity. An artist with a unique dynamic in his live performance, Northbound was the moniker adopted by Floridian born singer/songwriter Jonathon Fraser with the outset of his current project, which began as a solo acoustic endeavour, but now encompasses a style which straddles both a solo performance and a full band show, as he is joined on tour by Cody Badgley, Paul Cherewick, and Kevin Lopez as his backing band, who create a backdrop of incessant, pop punk inspired riffs and basslines that run deep and powerful over repetitive drums that emulate out through the tracks like a beating heart. Over this, Fraser’s emotive, lyrical and thoughtful vocals glide, balancing the universally melancholy musings of early 2000s emo with the heartfelt wrenchings of struggles and battles which are innately personal. The bouncy riffs at the opening of songs like the lyrically visceral ‘Leech’ are deceivingly upbeat, creating a layered set which you could easily just have fun singing along to, yet listen more closely, and the lyrics mirror the motifs that run throughout Northbound’s last full length release, 2015’s ‘Death of a Slug’, in that they are as elegant, minimalist and powerful as they are introspective and complex. There was a sense of pureness and clarity about the vision behind the band’s set that made it feel like a breath of fresh air- or rather, an undeniable gust, as the lively, incessant melodies refuse to let your attention swerve from the songs for even a millisecond!
A truly endearing moment came at the midway point of Northbound’s set, when Jonathon gave a heartfelt acknowledgement to his high school music teacher and mentor, who was watching from the back of the room on what was only their third show ever on UK soil. It gave an insight into the person behind the songs he had created, and showed that the humanity of Jonathon Fraser was what made him such a powerful and mesmerising performer. He was the kind of normal, humble man you could walk past on the street and not think twice about, yet up on that stage, the music filled him with an undeniably infectious energy that meant you couldn’t help but smile, watching him in his element under the stage lights.
In a wonderful whirlwind that was over far too soon, Northbound finished their set, and, after giving one last wave to the crowd and jumping down from the stage to grab a piece of paper that one of the girls at barrier was holding out to them, the band left the stage to a chorus of cheers and applause. Almost instantly, the crowd around me shifted and compressed, increasing the already climbing temperatures even further, as the atmosphere in the room shifted from the initial sparks of eagerness and began to kindle into a flickering, dancing flame. Almost as if the room could sense this metaphorical fire growing at the heart of the audience, the smoke machines on stage sputtered into life, sending out wisps of warm, dense steam that crept their way through the tightly packed bodies of the crowd, all but obscuring the stage as the techs scurried across it, setting up the equipment and setlists. Glancing up at the balcony, my heart leapt as I saw a lone beer glass left on the table, with no silhouette framing it from behind. Andy was gone. As It Is were on their way.
Water bottles were passed around the crowd, ensuring that nobody went without hydration in the stifling heat, but nothing could quench my excitement at seeing one of my favourite bands of all time perform for the fourth time, and on top of that, they were going to be playing some of my favourite songs from their new album, ‘okay.’, which was released on Fearless Records less than two months ago. Frontman Patty Walters had expressed to me the last time I met the band his unease over how well received their new songs would be, as some of them differed considerably from their previous sound and style. When I finally listened to the album, I felt that his concerns were completely unfounded. I fell in love with it instantly, and judging by the racket the crowd was making when the band, -completed, in addition to Patty and Andy, by guitarist Ben Biss, bassist Alistair Testo and drummer Patrick Foley- emerged, ethereal, from the smoke, the rest of their fans agreed with me! Needing no introduction, the band crashed into the first song of their set and the eponymous lead single from their sophomore album, ‘Okay’, and a tumultuous chorus of voices rose up in unison around me, screaming out the pure, simple truth that so many of us had been suppressing for so long ‘I don’t think that I’m okay!’.
A huge bubble of exultant happiness rose up in my chest, like it does every time I see this band perform live, as the powerful drag of catharsis rose over me, all the doubt and fear being drawn out of the tight knot it had been forming in my chest over the past few weeks with every word that I sang. Patty never stopped moving, not even for a single second, energy radiating off him in waves as he bounded up to the drum-kit, back to the front of the stage, pointing the mic at us all and grinning, awestruck, as we screamed the words he had once written alone in his house back at him, a collective choir of thousands of outcasts who had found unity behind the figurehead of this band and their music. ‘Okay’ slid seamlessly into the ‘Patchwork Love’, and at Patty’s command the entire crowd began jumping, lifting me effortlessly off my feet and drawing delighted screams from those around me. My throat already burnt like hot sandpaper, but I barely noticed as I continued to sing at the top of my lungs. It was hot and sweaty and messy and exists in my memory as an incoherent blur of sound and colour, but the fire and passion of the crowd, while it may not have been elegant, was incredibly, stunningly beautiful. The bonfire was fully ablaze, a bright, white-hot fire of hope and freedom that, when Patty announced the beginning of one of the band’s oldest songs ‘Can’t Save Myself’, seemed to spread and ignite something deep in the pit of my stomach, as I pushed myself up onto the tips of my toes and felt tears prick my eyes as I sang with everything I had. When you think of As It Is, the song that immediately comes to the minds of many, ‘Cheap Shots and Setbacks’, followed, the first song I ever heard from As It Is, and the track that became the catalyst for this crazy, wonderful adventure I have found myself on, the song that gave me a gateway into this beautiful musical family that I am so lucky to be a part of that I wouldn’t trade for anything else in the entire world. The people who truly understand what I mean when I scream out those now iconic lyrics: ‘We’re the kids who are dead inside, but we’re the ones who feel alive’.
The rollercoaster of emotions continued as the band launched into the heavy, gut-punching ‘No Way Out’, with its slam poetry inspired, candidly brutal bridge, and that is when I finally succumbed to tears, letting them roll down my cheeks as I continued to sing. The emotions behind that song are raw and visceral, and it’s a message that has refused to leave my head since the day that it was released, and it reduced me to tears on the bus! And the tears didn’t let up, as the band launched into a run of new songs, from the softer, retrospective ode to the band’s hometown of Brighton ‘The Coast Is Where Home Is’, filled with warm tones of sunsets and pink-tinted waves viewed through the rose tinted spectacles of hindsight; the acoustic, sad realisations of ‘Still Remembering’ and the existential questions it poses about the nature of a life lived in memory; and, a new addition to the set-list for this run of shows, the dark, grunting yet inventive dual vocal track ‘Soap’, which makes use of the incredible vocal talents of frontman Patty and secondary vocalist Ben to channel the inner conflicts that come with having an image in the public eye that conflicts with your internal perception of yourself. Despite these songs being less than two months old, the reaction of the crowd was staggering- the swaying was so powerful during the two softer tracks that I didn’t even need to move, the undulating waves of the crowd around me swept me up and carried me along in its flow, and the screams and cheers that hailed the unexpected opening to ‘Soap’ were akin to a roaring tsunami of sound breaking over my head! In fact, Patty barely needed to sing at all, as evidenced by the opening to ‘Speak Soft’, the first track from the band’s 2015 debut ‘Never Happy, Ever After’, as when the first notes rang out, the voices of the crowd all but drowned out Patty’s attempt to make himself heard! Pointing the mic at us and beaming down in my direction- making my heart flutter in the process- he let us take over before adding his voice to the din, creating an undeniable connection between artists and audience that brought a huge, genuine smile to my face.
Despite patty’s energy and vocal prowess, it warmed my heart that the star of ‘Pretty Little Distance’ was guitarist Andy, whose riff brought cheers and screams from the crowd as he took centre stage, eyes focused on the strings as his fringe fell into his eyes, seemingly oblivious to the screams of the crowd as he executed his masterful melody perfectly. Ben was less understated with his exuberance, falling to his knees at one point during the set as he shredded out his phrase, silhouetted by the white stage lights, looking every inch the rock god he appears to be! By the time the band reached the penultimate track, and one of my favourites from ‘okay.’, I was emotionally and physically exhausted from jumping as high as I could at Patty’s command and screaming out every word, despite the burn in my throat now throbbing with every word. But this was a track I couldn’t afford to miss, as it was the heartfelt apology Patty had penned to his sister as a small part of apologising for not being there to support her through her struggles with mental health in her youth: ‘Hey Rachel’. The crowd gave it everything for those three minutes, the singing rising to screams and the bouncing rising even higher than it had previously, though it was still no match for the heights reached by Patty as he busted out one of his characteristically atmospheric leaps, spinning the microphone as he did so- thankfully it remained attached to the chord this time!
And of course, there could be no other closing track to an As It Is’ show but the traditional closing anthem that always spawns a tidal wave of crowdsurfers: it couldn’t be anything but the pure pop punk joy that is ‘Dial Tones’! I was desperate to join the hordes of crowdsurfers flying through the air and being hauled over the barrier, but it would have been a very short lived flight given that we were in the second row of the crowd! I more than made up for that in singing and jumping, however, and by the time the final notes rang out, Patty was saying his thank you to the crowd, praising us as the loudest crowd on the tour so far, beaming out proudly at us all. Then the band were waving their last goodbyes, and making their way off stage, back into the smoke.
In the comparative quiet that followed, I stood, stunned, torn between wanting to scream with happiness and break down into sobs as the cocktail of emotions coursed through my veins. For me, nothing compares to seeing one of your favourite bands perform live, and completely forgetting where you are, who you were before you came in, and just existing, as the hot, sweaty, embarrassing mess you are in that moment, and being completely, undeniably okay with that! By the time I had managed to regain some sense of normalcy and slow the beating of my heart (from the speed of a rocket being launched to about the speed of an aeroplane on the runway!), I became suddenly aware that one of my friends had already been pulled out of the crowd in front of me due to the heat and crushing pressure of the crowd on all sides, which was suddenly a thousand times more intense, and I decided it was best for me to make a swift exit too as the room spun and my vision blurred from dehydration! With the help from the very thoughtful security guards, I hauled myself out over the barrier and took a properly deep breath for the first time in about an hour. Wending my way through the crowd, I killed the time before the arrival of the night’s headliners, State Champs, by grabbing a free drink of water from the venue bar and buying some merch, effectively bankrupting myself in the process, but found I was too full of residual joy from seeing As It Is to care all that much! Scanning the crowd for any sign of my friends, I made my way through the huddles of people clustered at the back of the room, until I found myself in the area where I was almost certain a mosh pit was imminently about to open up, as soon as the band took to the stage.
And indeed it did!
As soon as the lights went down, cheers rose up from the crowd and the band bounded out onto the stage, waving enthusiastically as they took up their positions and fell headlong into their opening song, ‘Losing Myself’, from their latest album, 2015’s ‘Around the World and Back’, released by Pure Noise Records- the album which catapulted the band from upcoming scene hopefuls to a worldwide success story. Instantly, the crowd opened up, people jumping and running, crashing into each other and singing as loud as they could muster. It was already a pop punk party of epic proportions, and it was only just beginning! Youth, vitality and images of summer road-trips, sailing down coastal roads with the windows down, racing away from heartbreak with your friends by your side, wind in your hair and the stereo cranked up loud laced their way through the infectious riffs of ‘Hard to Please’, bringing the full force of an American summer beaming into the dark room in the cold north of rainy England! Catchy, hook-laden anthem for empowerment ‘Shape Up’, followed, and the angry, middle-fingers-up call out to those who emphasise trivial problems for sympathy and unwarranted attention that is ‘Eyes Closed’ came chasing, nipping at its heels. The undeniably catchy, cheeky riffs pulled the crowd along in an excited frenzy, the mosh pit opening up as men, women, girls, boys and everyone in between of all ages poured in, shoving each other around, jumping on top of each other and leaping up to crowdsurf over the heads of the hordes of fans in front of them before vaulting with varying degrees of elegance over the barrier. The energy in the room was infectious, spurred on by frontman Derek Discanio’s constant flow of praise at the volume of the crowd’s singing and cheering in the few breathless seconds between each song! Energetic, fierce, powerful and incredibly, incredibly fun- State Champs never disappoint, whether it be the main stage at Leeds Festival where I saw them for the first time and flung myself headlong into my first proper mosh pit, or packed into this sweaty, stifling venue on a side street in Manchester, one thing you can always count on with this band is a sense of freedom to get as stuck in to the mosh as much as you’d like, huge singalongs and, above all, one hell of a party!
A party which continued as ‘Remedy’ burst into life over the speakers, with its anger at the story of a failed relationship that it tells channelled into Derek’s impassioned vocals and the grinding bassline that gives way to an intricate, soaring melody. The theme of relationships, both their ups and downs, spun their way through the next few tracks: be that the uncertainty and fear coupled with a sense of curiosity and a longing for adventure that forms the conflict behind the lyrics of ‘All or Nothing’, or the raw, unsubtle ‘f*ck you’ and sense of liberation when you finally cut ties with that toxic person who has been dragging you down and holding you back that comes with the universally appealing earworm ‘All You Are Is History’. Not ones to forget their roots, State Champs also treated the audience to a performance of ‘Easy Enough’, the lyrics of which resonate with me so strongly, as they speak of that universal desire to cement your place in the world and keep fighting and pushing towards achieving your dreams so that you can be remembered how you would like to be, as something ‘more than memory’.
The only lull in the sun drenched, electric atmosphere came with the brief aside when the rest of the band, apart from Derek and guitarist Tyler Szalkowski, left the stage and an acoustic guitar was pulled from the shadows for the band to perform a couple of more mellow acoustic ballads, providing some welcome relief for myself and the crowd from jumping around like maniacs for at least the next few minutes! ‘Stick Around’, taken from the band’s acoustic album, aptly titled ‘The Acoustic Things’, was met with passion and emotion from the crowd in equal measure, a thousand voices joining Derek’s, each one fuelled by its own experiences of love and loss. ‘Stick Around’ was followed by the beautiful cliché that is ‘If I’m Lucky’, the epitome of a lovesick ballad that tells the story of love at first sight and the wonderful burst of light that finding your ‘sunshine’ can bring into your life. Phone lights glinted and winked all around me in the darkness, swaying in unison, and a warm balm seemed to settle in the pit of my stomach, drawing a soft smile to my face as I added my cracked, hoarse voice to the choir of voices around me.
In true State Champs fashion, however, the beguiling, bouncy melodies soon returned in the form of ‘Perfect Score’, opening up the mosh pit once again which engulfed me back into its midst, and there I stayed, lost in a sea of sweaty, swarming bodies as the incessant chords and rousing choruses of ‘Simple Existence’ and then ‘Breaking Ground’ swept over me. Suddenly, the unmistakable opening of my all-time favourite State Champs song, the iconic ‘Elevated’ burst into my ears, and an involuntary scream rose from my throat, which son morphed into the fervent lyrics that I will always hold close to my heart ‘Why can’t you see, this is where you need to be?!’. Because in that moment, I knew where I had to be was here, swimming through the infectiously catchy, sun drenched melodies of songs like this. I needed to live within the music.
Without warning, the lights faded to black and the band exited the stage, followed already by cheers and shouts that soon fused together into one insistent cry ‘ONE MORE SONG! ONE MORE SONG!’. Barely half a minute later, the lights rose once more, as everyone knew they would, and the darkness lifted to reveal the band, all grinning, taking up their positions once more for ‘Not one, but two more songs!’, as Derek exclaimed to raucous applause. Then, totally unexpectedly, a song the band have not played live more than a handful of times in the past few years broke over the sound system, drawing disbelieving yells from the older members of the crowd: ‘Deadly Conversation’. By this time, I was standing at the edge of the pit, still jumping as much as I could in amongst the crowd which had been compressed by the opening of a huge circle pit in the centre of the room, but my focus was on one thing and one thing only, the huge finale I knew was coming, the song which has pushed State Champs onto the global stage, the confessional, empowered and all-around-wonderful ‘Secrets’. And when, after thanks from Derek to the crowd for their enthusiasm (and a genially scathing remark about our raucous singing outside disturbing their sleep, which caused me to flush an even deeper scarlet than I already was, concentrating my gaze on the floor in apologetic embarrassment!), those two powerful chords cut through the noise of the crowd, I abandoned my last shred of composure and threw myself headlong into the mosh, singing and jumping and dancing like there was no tomorrow. My inhibitions were gone, I was truly free for the first time in months, and so when I found myself standing next to a group of strong looking guys, I barely hesitated as I tapped one of them on the shoulder and motioned upwards with my finger. He understood what I was asking almost instantly, and, signalling to his friend, he grabbed one of my legs, his friend grabbing the other as the pair of them threw me up into the air and onto the waiting hands of the crowd in front of me. I squealed as the sea of hands bore me forwards, an entire community of people who were, quite literally holding me up and keeping me afloat. It was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure, and I could not have felt more elated in that moment if I was anywhere else on the planet. I was suspended, almost flying through the air, still singing along as loudly as I could muster, as I felt a veritable explosion of radiant happiness which has not been matched by anything else before or since. The gravity of that moment didn’t really hit home with me until after I had been hauled over the barrier by security and run along the barrier, exchanging high fives with seemingly bodiless outstretched hands that protruded from the crowd. I had always wanted to crowdsurf, and I had now finally done it, all to the soundtrack of one of my favourite songs. It was such a small moment in the grand scheme of the universe, barely significant to anyone else but me, but it was a moment I will treasure for the rest of my life, no matter where I go or who I one day become.
In short, for me, it was one of the best gig experiences of my life. That is all I can say. Having those experiences has impacted me in a myriad of ways that even I don’t fully understand yet, and maybe I never will. Running through the darkened streets with my friends after the show, laughing ecstatically with every bubble of joy that rose up in my chest and contemplating the mammoth task that I knew writing this review was going to be after all that had happened in this day that felt like its own small eternity, I realised something, the flaw in the system when it comes to personal, emotional reviews of shows and albums. As much as I try, I can never truly convey the sheer joy, the liberation and the happiness that comes from attending a show like this, no matter how many words I write or synonyms I use to attempt to quantify my emotions at any given moment. The person next to me in the mosh pit at any given time may have completely different emotions to me: they may have been bored, barely paying attention to the band themselves and just having a good time with their friends, so drunk they barely knew where they were, or they could have been having an even more emotionally intense reaction than I was. All these words (and believe me, I know there are a lot of them!) are simply my attempt at expressing my emotional reaction to the performances I saw: someone else’ opinions may differ wildly from mine due to their own past, current circumstances and musical preferences, and that is just as valid as my opinions and recounting of the story of this rollercoaster of a night.
So, do you want to know what seeing this band is truly like from your own perspective? Well, you’re going to have to go out and experience it for yourself!
Which you can do! State Champs still have a few dates left of their current UK/EU run:
Leeds- Leeds Beckett Student Union- 16th March 2017
Birmingham- O2 Insitute Birmingahm- 17th March 2017
London- O2 Forum Kentish Town- 18th March
The band then embarking on their US headline tour with Against the Current, Don Bronco and With Confidence. Dates are below: