REVIEW: Breaking Benjamin rewards hometown fans with surprise acoustic show in Luzerne
Arriving just before Breaking Benjamin started their first song on Thursday, Nov. 30, it seemed like this would be the first show that NEPA Scene would have to review from outside the venue looking in.
That’s because, just two days ago, the multi-platinum-selling rock band from Wilkes-Barre surprised their hometown fans by announcing a free, last-minute acoustic show at Hops & Barleys in Luzerne. After selling out theaters and arenas across the country and overseas throughout 2017, even cracking the top 200 bestselling North American tours last year with Disturbed (including a sold-out concert at The Pavilion at Montage Mountain in Scranton), they were playing a tiny bar/restaurant that wouldn’t even see these types of crowds on Parade Day.
Capping capacity at around 300 people, the bar area was wall-to-wall fans with precariously balanced beers in hand, and with charming vintage photos hanging above families eating dinner in the adjacent dining room while their tables were surrounded by screaming patrons, it was clear right away that this was not going to be a typical concert. Singer/guitarist Benjamin Burnley, joined by bassist Aaron Bruch on acoustic guitar and drummer Shaun Foist on the djembe, said as much before they started, laying the ground rules for this unusual gig early on as they soundchecked.
“This is not a show, so whenever I get tired, I’m going to stop,” Burnley explained, admitting that they were largely winging it. “There’s going to be things we might fuck up. We don’t care. Do you guys care?”
This prompted a fervent “No!” from the crowd, punctured by an encouraging “Fuck it up!” from one enthusiastic fan.
They began with a cover of “The Red” by Chevelle just to “see what’s up,” Burnley joked, referring to the song’s chorus. “Drink up – I don’t want you to remember any of this shit!”
With the intimacy of the venue and camera phones held high recording it all, that isn’t likely. Despite being packed together like sardines, everyone cheerfully sang along to “So Cold,” the lead single from their 2004 sophomore album “We Are Not Alone,” followed by “Blow Me Away,” featured on the “Halo 2” soundtrack that same year.
“I love all you guys. You guys are fucking awesome. You know, we’re here hanging out because we love you guys. We’re doing this just for nothing, just to be here with you guys. Thank you so much,” Burnley said before going into “Angels Fall” from “Dark Before Dawn,” the band’s latest release that is due for a follow-up sometime next year.
Despite not being able to hear themselves well and cramped on a tiny stage they shared with old piano and sound equipment, the trio sounded great and was pretty clear even as we and a handful of other patrons stood outside listening in. Finally, we were permitted to come in as they played “Sooner or Later” and their own version of Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever,” ending their first set.
Burnley and Bruch hadn’t even stepped down off the stage yet when they swarmed with fans asking for selfies, which they gladly obliged. With big smiles everyone’s faces, it was difficult to determine who was having a better time – the crowd or the band. These people were a mix of young fans wearing their year-old tour shirts and older supporters who remember when Burnley and the original lineup were playing small bars just like this one, but all seemed just as appreciative.
After the break, they returned with “Failure,” the first single that featured their current lineup, and onto “Breath” from 2006’s “Phobia,” sparking another sing-along and capped off with a big belch from Burnley.
“And then there was peace,” he cracked. “I’m not right. None of us are right. … I think there’s carbon monoxide that leaks into our tour bus because none of us are right,” though he was likely just high off the energy in the room.
“None of us are either!” someone shouted before the band started “Until the End,” another “Phobia” track.
“When should we do this? Every week, right? I would. I would come here every fuckin’ week, and if less and less people came, I’d still fuckin’ be here every fuckin’ week. If more and more people came, then we’d all be in trouble.”
This led him to thank the crowd again for packing the place and joking about other social media posts he could make to draw people in.
“I think I’ll just post, ‘Hey, I’m at the Wyoming Valley Mall right now. Who wants to come and hang out with me? I wonder what would happen. I’d probably be standing there and there would be nobody there,” he mused, eliciting laughter. “Do you have a guitar and a microphone? No? Then so what?”
He noted that Breaking Benjamin got their start just down the street at what was once called the Voodoo Lounge, which became Gator’s Pub and Eatery years later when they first made their 2014 comeback with a new lineup. (It’s currently the Coal City Tavern.)
“Literally right in this spot that we’re standing is Breaking Benjamin’s real home, so I think it’s appropriate that we play that,” Burnley said as they went right into “Home” from their 2002 debut record “Saturate.”
Complimenting his voice, Burnley pointed out that Bruch is a “phenomenal singer” and used to play solo at Hops & Barleys every Tuesday before joining Breaking Ben in 2014, so Bruch took over lead vocals on a cover of Tool’s “Stinkfist” that mimicked the voice of Maynard James Keenan quite well.
Then it was back to the old school with “Polyamorous,” the single that started it all, followed by Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and “Give Me a Sign” from 2009’s “Dear Agony.”
That’s when, before Bruch took the lead again on “Aerials” by System of a Down, channeling singer Serj Tankian’s cadence much like he did Keenan’s, the story of how this impromptu performance came together was revealed.
“A couple days ago, [Burnley] texts me and he’s like, ‘Let’s go play at Hops.’ And I said, ‘OK, we could do that.’ So I called [Hops co-owner] Scott [Snider] and I was like, ‘Hey, we’re going to come play,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, all right,’” Bruch recalled.
“And Ben says, ‘Well, I’m going to put it up like three days early on Facebook, but I don’t think anybody will come.’ And I was like, ‘No, you could have put it up today and people would have still come,’ so thank you guys for proving me right.”
“If we weren’t here right now, we’d probably be home watching ‘Stranger Things’ or something like that,” Burnley added. “This is much better.”
Once the song finished, they went back on break just after 11 p.m. but didn’t return, though most of the slowly dissipating working class crowd were more than satisfied with what they got, chatting and grabbing autographs and pictures with all three members before leaving to get up for work in the morning. The band sat casually in the back of the dining room for the next hour or so, hanging out like they could almost two decades ago, long before record deals and No. 1 albums. While fame and fortune has certainly changed their lives, it hasn’t made them forget their roots. Bruch even tunes into the live stream of the NEPA Scene Podcast on occasion to keep up with his many friends in the local music scene.
The takeaway here isn’t just that these successful musicians showed a little hometown love on a random night and had a blast doing it – it’s also important for music fans to keep in mind that, just a few years ago, Bruch was performing in this very same spot to small weeknight crowds who may or may not have even been paying attention between Miller Lites. As Burnley mentioned earlier, Northeastern Pennsylvania crowds continued to grow over the years until Breaking Benjamin became the massive worldwide name they are today, but that all started with very humble beginnings in half empty rooms. In other words, don’t wait for millions of others to validate music for you before you hop onboard – seek it out at your local bars and clubs first. As evidenced on Thursday, they’ll remember you for it, and you’ll end up connecting with the music that much more.
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, photographer, and podcast host. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.