REVIEW/PHOTOS: Lifer reunion in Wilkes-Barre brings back memories and underrated music
For an hour and a half on Friday, Aug. 24, three former bandmates, a guest bassist, and a capacity crowd at Bart & Urby’s in Wilkes-Barre stepped back in time nearly 20 years to relive the era of nu metal and a special time in the Northeastern Pennsylvania music scene when bars and clubs were packed practically every weekend in support of original local music.
Lifer, a short-lived band that left a long-lasting impression locally, was back on stage for the first time in eight years and only the second time since breaking up in 2003. Originally billed as an acoustic reunion with vocalist Nick Coyle and guitarist Aaron Fink, the duo surprised the hundreds in attendance by introducing another Lifer member, Tony Kruszka, on drums and Mike Morgan of The Drama Club and Pan.a.ce.a on bass (replacing original bassist Mark Klepaski) halfway through the set to finish the concert as a full electric band.
Strangers with Candy, as they were known by when they formed in Wilkes-Barre in 1999, became famous nationwide overnight when they won MTV’s “Ultimate Cover Band Contest” in 2000, but fans knew them back home for their own songs from their “No Need” EP. This televised opportunity allowed them to sign to a major label, Universal Music/Republic Records, and release their self-titled album in 2001 with the singles “Boring,” “Not Like You,” and “Breathless.”
All of those, of course, made it into the setlist, along with Strangers songs like “Key of Me” and “Top” from Live’s 1994 album “Throwing Copper,” which was the first song Coyle and Fink ever played together when they first founded the band, an anecdote they shared on stage. The four covers that made them famous – “Take on Me,” “Jump Around,” “Guerrilla Radio,” and “Nookie” – came towards the end of the evening, all right in a row, which caused a mosh pit to open up as fans rushed the front of the stage to sing along.
“I can’t really believe that we’re going to do this song, but in the spirit of us doing what we did on MTV, we’re going to do it for you,” Coyle said of Limp Bizkit’s sexually charged rap rock hit “Nookie.” “When we were learning this song again, I was like, ‘Goddamn, this has a great fucking groove. No wonder it was a good song then,’ so I hope you enjoy it.”
And while Lifer’s original material far surpassed that cheesy single, his statement summed up the night in a way. These musicians have matured in the following decades, and so has their music – Coyle has gone on to join and record with Cold, and his current unsigned project Death Valley Dreams is producing some brilliant indie/alternative tunes in a new wave style. Now on his fourth release, Fink’s solo albums get better and better as he becomes more comfortable as the frontman of Aaron Fink & the Fury years after his Breaking Benjamin run. They moved on to bigger and better things, but there’s something undeniably fun about the catchy music they created when they were practically kids. Maybe the bleach blonde hair, facial hair and piercings, ball chain necklaces, chains, and early 2000s rap rock seem dated or even hokey these days, but the emotions they put into those songs are still very real to both the authors of those songs and the audience that identified with them as teenagers and 20-somethings.
Like opening up a childhood diary, this show tapped into more than just nostalgia – it brought everyone back to a different time in their lives, when they were still getting over their first big breakups or hitting the bars with college friends and pushing the limits of youth. While some relived this by having a few too many drinks and climbing the support beams (OK, just one obnoxious guy), most seemed content to leave their kids and other adult responsibilities at home and just sing those angsty songs again as they remembered why they identified with them in the first place.
It’s no wonder that Lifer announced just before the last song, “Heave,” that they would reunite again for a full electric show at the Scranton Iron Furnaces on Friday, Sept. 21 with Behind the Grey, Send Request, and These Idol Hands – they all sound great and seemed to be having a great time playing together again. Isn’t that what the best rock shows are all about?
“Come on out – we’re going to get fucking wild,” Coyle encouraged the raucous crowd. “We want to thank you guys so much for coming out. I know it’s been forever since we played a show. We’re having some fun, so maybe we’ll be doing a couple more for you guys.”
We could use a few more nights like these – just don’t sleep on the new music they’re putting out these days before that’s all considered retro too.
Lifer setlist, Aug. 24, 2018, Bart & Urby’s, Wilkes-Barre:
Key of Me
Not Like You
Take on Me
Photos by Scott Kucharski Photography
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, photographer, and podcast host. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.