Despite the open bar and the allure of attending a “private party,” I could not convince a single one of my friends to come to this damn show with me. The conversation would go something like this: I’d say hey, there’s this concert, and it’s both super secret and free, and the band is a handsome group of fellas from South Carolina, and they play rock music, and a lot of it is about God. And whoever I was talking to would say ha, right, maybe next time, or make a joke about how, since the Lord was with me, I must not need a plus one. Even my church-going roommate wasn’t hip to Jesus rock.
Given all that, I’m not surprised NEEDTOBREATHE has worked their way out of the Christian music media circuit. Though they came of age in it, the niche has always been, in a sense, a limitation. Even as far back as their mainstream debut, 2006’s Daylight, the group has straddled the barrier between secular and sacred, pushing their image not as a devotional band per se but as a group of guys who are really passionate about a lot of things–the South, flashy classic rock, toothy smiles–and that one of those things happens to be God. Then there’s the trio’s personality to contend with–brothers Bo and Bear (yes, really) Rinehart are the sons of an Assembly of God pastor who grew up in the superbly named town of Possum Kingdom, South Carolina and have been playing tunes together since Bear was a high school football star. In college, they added bassist Seth Bolt, who looked very brooding and iconically boy-bandish, on stage at The Slipper Room, with his chin-length locks, v-neck, and many necklaces. The trio came of age together, both as musicians and as people. As they took the stage, all smiles and electric guitar flourish, I immediately got the sense that playing music is as much an expression of the love these guys have for each other as it is anything else.
It was that ruthless warm-and-fuzziness, not any lyrical preaching, that set off my allergies. The space was small and weirdly dainty, and the decor–floral wallpaper and heavy red velvet curtains–was fully committed to the cabaret aesthetic that is associated with The Slipper Room’s name. I’d never been there for one of the burlesque performances the venue is better known for, but I was sure that any members of the audience who had ever attended a more typical Slipper Room performance were now getting a kick out of seeing a trio of Kings of Leon-ish southern dudes, with arena-friendly power chords and an earnestness so potent you’d go blind if you looked at it directly, take the stage.
The set gained momentum, and the warm-and-fuzzies ensued on two fronts. The whole event was a release party for NEEDTOBREATHE’s latest album Rivers In The Wasteland, which came out on April 15th, and most of the show’s invitees seemed to be industry folks who worked in PR or for the band’s record label, Atlantic. Nearly everyone in the room had had a hand in putting out Rivers In The Wasteland, and the camaraderie was heartwarming. As an outsider, the vibe felt a little like walking into a bunk of teenagers at the end of six weeks of summer camp: everyone was emotional, and seemed to have inside jokes with everyone else–the only thing missing were team t-shirts.
Then, maybe five or six songs into the set, Bear paused and turned to look at Bo. The next song they were going to play, he told the crowd, sounding a little choked up, was called “Brother.” In the early stages of the recording process, he explained, the group had experienced some setbacks, even taking a break to return home and think about whether or not they wanted NEEDTOBREATHE to continue. Joe Stillwell, who’d been playing with the band for over a decade, decided to leave. But the way Bear described it, his biggest goal for Rivers In The Wasteland was to rearrange the group’s priorities, and bring its three members back to their love of God and of each other. Thus, “Brother” – a love song Bo wrote for Bear.
Look, I’m a skeptic, too. I know all that sounds a little cheesy. And often, it was: like in the first verse of NEEDTOBREATHE’s incredibly anthemic single “The Heart, when Bear sang the lyrics “Ain’t no gift like the present tense, ain’t no love like an old romance / Got’sta make hay when the sun is shinin’, can’t waste time when it comes time to dance.” However, the trio’s strength–which keeps their music from being instrumentally bland and lyrically over-sweetened–is their totally endearing energy. By the time they closed out the evening with “Oh Carolina” I was sold– if not on NEEDTOBREATHE’s individuality, then certainly on their earnestness.