Rich Howells

REVIEW/PHOTOS: ‘Come Together’ benefit concert represents the best of NEPA music and resilience

REVIEW/PHOTOS: ‘Come Together’ benefit concert represents the best of NEPA music and resilience
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For those who love local music, last Thursday was like a long-overdue family gathering after a hard year.

And while it has only been about four months since bars, restaurants, and music venues shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, it has felt like a year for many musicians and their friends who come out to see them on a regular basis. “Come Together: A Community Benefit Concert for the Arts” was able to bring back a little normalcy on July 16, albeit in a creatively abnormal way.

Held on a massive 40-foot stage erected in front of the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes-Barre Township, attendees rolled up to the platform in their cars and pickup trucks and enjoyed the show from lawn chairs placed in socially distanced parking spaces as the 13 bands were broadcast live across the lot on three enormous LED screens backed by stacked speakers and radios tuned into over five hours worth of local music. Small blue barriers and safety regulations may have kept everyone spread out, but Northeastern Pennsylvania’s introduction to bigger-budget, large-scale drive-in concerts still managed to live up to its name by bringing people together to raise money for nonprofits, theaters, and performance centers affected by COVID-19.

A group of young students from the nearby Rockology Music Academy calling themselves “American Idiots” for this gig opened around 6 p.m. with “The Star-Spangled Banner” on guitar and covers of The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” Radiohead’s “Creep” and, appropriately, The Beatles’ “Come Together.” Joe Nardone Jr., Rockology owner and the co-owner of two Gallery of Sound record stores, served as the emcee of this parking lot show he organized in just a few weeks with the help of AJ Jump, drummer and co-owner of Wilkes-Barre music venue Karl Hall.

“Nobody is older than a teenager right here!” Nardone said of his school’s students as the crowd cheered at the end of their short set. “This is the future of rock and roll here!”

Much of this benefit concert showcased the present and future of rock music in NEPA, from indie and alternative rock to pop, folk, blues, and the hard rock/nu metal sound that caught on internationally with multi-platinum breakout band Breaking Benjamin, even featuring past and present members of the Wilkes-Barre group in various acts that night. One of the headliners, Tigers Jaw, represents a new wave of success coming out of the Scranton area, more personal and emotional rock music embraced in small local venues, larger stages in Philadelphia, and by the world, as evidenced by an ever-growing fan base, independent label signings, and tours throughout the United States and Europe. The Menzingers and Title Fight are two other examples that rose up from the early 2000s Cafe Metro days to their current status as indie/punk/emo darlings.

The second artist to hit the stage, James Barrett, is much in that same vein, playing the kind of introspective indie/alternative rock songs with his full backing band that earned him an opening slot on The Menzingers and Tigers Jaw’s annual Holiday Show in Scranton in 2017 and 2018. With an even stronger album to showcase this time, 2019’s “The Price of Comfort,” and much longer hair, Barrett was finally able to show off his new “stadium rock band” in front of an actual stadium. A highlight was when singer/songwriter Amanda Rogan of Sweetnest joined them for “Oh My God,” a single they released together in March.

With the stage split down the middle, allowing one act to play while the next sets up, they were quickly followed by Esta Coda, one of the most likable NEPA bands in both sound and personality. Playing catchy songs from their 2014 debut EP, “Kindness” up through 2018’s “King Bitter” (produced by Will Yip, known for his work with Tigers Jaw, The Menzingers, and Title Fight), it was easy to get the crowd engaged and singing along as they crammed as much music into their 17-minute set as possible, closing with the beautifully crafted earworm “Breathe.”

Young punk rock trio Blind Choice was on fourth, playing a mix of covers and original songs like “Stormy Night of Stray” as they represented the Lehigh Valley on the lineup. At the end, they were joined by Breaking Benjamin drummer Shaun Foist to take on Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box” as their drummer Tanner Snyder switched to guitar. After releasing some quarantine videos recently, the band was eager to be back in front of a live crowd.

The Mule Team, a supergroup of well-known local artists like JP Biondo, Chris Kearney, Roy Williams, AJ Jump, and Ian O’Hara, deliberately slowed things down with some folk, Americana, bluegrass, and traditional country music while looking like Wild West bandits with their handkerchiefs pulled over their mouths for the duration of the set. Highlights included Williams’ original gem “Ruby Begonia” and the clever closer “Drive My Car” by The Beatles, encouraging those who weren’t busy dancing to beep their car horns along to the “beep beep” of the chorus. While many bands would find crowd interaction challenging at a drive-in concert, The Mule Team showed everyone how it was done.

With a thumping beat, two extra members, and three keyboards, Modern Ties threw modern pop into the mix by kicking off with the bouncy “Supernatural” and didn’t let up with soaring vocal harmonies and energy for days. These heartbreakers always look so happy to be on stage, and this time was no different as they burned through all new songs from their upcoming debut, “Moments/Missed Opportunities.” While they are largely leaving their time as Black Tie Stereo behind, those years of experience as a Scranton cover band with some original material have made them the tight group they are today, as the fast-driving single “Outside the Lines” can attest.

Vocalist Stephen Murphy then shifted over to join the all-star group backing Joe Burke, which also included AJ Jump, guitarist Rob Husty, and clarinet/flute/sax player Nick Driscoll. With an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, the West Pittston singer/songwriter shared songs from his expertly crafted debut album, “Mystic, Immediately,” recorded and produced by Bret Alexander of The Badlees fame, as well as a hint of what’s to come with the new song “Oak Tree.”

The blues strolled in next like it owned the place with Dustin Douglas & The Electric Gentlemen, the most badass rockers in the region. With killer riffs and talent oozing out of every guitar solo, the musicianship truly takes center stage with this Wilkes-Barre trio, from the country-tinged “On the Dance Floor” to the toe-tapping breakup song “No More Tears to Cry” from their 2018 album “Break It Down.” The sun may have set at this point in the night, but their effortless swagger and tasty licks managed to heat things right up again. The boys managed to squeeze in a nice little jam session at the end of “My Time Is Precious” and keep things running hot.

University Drive jumped right in with the blistering “Damage” and “Almost Gone” from their 2019 masterpiece “Clear,” grabbing the growing audience in the lot from hundreds of feet away and pulling their attention in close with raw alternative rock. Scranton singer/songwriter Ed Cuozzo writes with such a deeply emotional intensity that it always comes through in his live performances, and guitarist/backing vocalist Angelo Maruzzelli matches that force quite well, easily allowing him to take over vocals on “Sinking” from the band’s 2017 debut, “On/Off: Reset.” As they closed with the memorable “Safe and Quiet” that has you singing those words to yourself long after, it’s obvious that University Drive should be so much more famous than they are, and maybe that would be the case if they were on road right now opening for Cold in clubs across the country (as they did last year to great acclaim), but COVID-19 put those plans on hold.

“This is such a beautiful thing,” Cuozzo commented as he looked around. “It’s the first show we’ve played in a really, really long time and we’re really, really fucking honored to be able to play it for you guys.”

The audience seemed the least familiar with ViFolly, the only non-local band on the bill. Shaun Foist, seen briefly earlier in the day, recently returned to this group to drum for them whenever he’s not touring with Breaking Benjamin, and they graciously drove over eight hours from Ohio to play in Wilkes-Barre. As their set went on, they gradually won people over when they took on the Pink Floyd classic “Another Brick in the Wall.”

Then it was time for his BB bandmate Aaron Bruch to come out and lead the long-awaited reunion of Wilkes-Barre hard rock band Pan.a.ce.a, who haven’t performed together since 2011. What was unique about this is Bruch was previously the band’s bassist, not the singer – original vocalist Tim Farley lives in Texas now and couldn’t make it to this event. Guitarist Paul Young managed to get former bandmates Mike Morgan and Matt Jaffin on board, though, along with Johnny Jones of Ashfall lending an extra guitar to the mix. Bruch, Breaking Benjamin’s bassist and backing vocalist since 2014, was able to leap up front like he had been there the whole time as they opened with “Day of Remembrance” and played nearly 30 minutes of songs from their two major releases, “All or Nothing” and “We the Broken.” Overwhelmed with nostalgia, some fans attempted to rush over to the stage to see the band up close for the first time in nearly a decade, but a friendly security guard was quick to remind them of the social distancing rules in place and they returned to bang their heads by their cars. With Pan.a.ce.a’s entire catalog of songs now available to stream online as “The Complete Journey,” they could easily gain new fans in this current iteration if they decide to keep it going.

“First off, it’s weird not playing an instrument and standing up here. It’s really, really weird. I’m doing my best,” Bruch said with a smile.

“You should see how weird it is over here looking at you,” Young added. “It’s real, real fucked up!”

“Second, every single one of you that came and filled up this parking lot today, thank you so much. Thank you. I know every one of you is tired of just sitting in your fucking house and just staring at the wall and looking at each other, and I really appreciate you all coming out here and just staring at each other for a little bit,” Bruch continued before diving into “I Never.”

“You’re really helping out some good causes. This has fucked up life for so many people, and I’m sure all of you included, so coming out here and doing your part is really a big thing and I really appreciate it.”

Everything slowed back down for Tigers Jaw, who played a stripped-down acoustic set much like they did at the more intimate Karl Hall last year. Going from heavy rock growls to harmonious indie pop is a jarring transition, but vocalist/guitarist Ben Walsh and vocalist/keyboardist Brianna Collins handled it gracefully and soon had people captivated, with some of the previous acts coming out from the back to watch them with big grins as the duo started with “Follows” from their latest album, 2017’s well-received “Spin.” Their voices blend together perfectly, and with relatable lyrics as clear as their musical chemistry that has kept the band alive through various lineups over the years, not even the strong winds whipping Collins’ hair around could disrupt this little moment in time. While sticking mostly to “Spin” and 2014’s “Charmer,” they did indulge longtime fans with “Plane vs. Tank vs. Submarine” from their 2008 breakout self-titled album. Last month, Tigers Jaw signed to Hopeless Records (the label of Taking Back Sunday, New Found Glory, Sum 41, The Used, and more) and released a new single, “Warn Me,” that is set to be featured on their sixth studio album made with a full band, so they ended with that, garnering some of the loudest cheers and car horn beeps of the night.

“We really appreciate you helping out the community. This is a very difficult and trying time for a lot of people, so it’s really important to look after those who are most vulnerable and we’ll all get through this together,” Walsh said.

The stage was cleared for the first time all day to make way for Lifer, who burst out of “My Room” and followed up with the hard-hitting “Parade” and “Not Like You.” Much like Pan.a.ce.a, this band takes fans right back to the early aughts and the days of nu metal with clean singing, aggressive screaming, and a little bit of rapping over heavy riffs that stick with you, in this case for decades. Lifer may have only had one studio album, their self-titled 2001 release on Universal Music/Republic Records, but local fans have followed these guys since their formation as a cover band in 1999, cheered them on when they won MTV’s Ultimate Cover Band Contest in 2000, and packed venues when vocalist Nick Coyle and guitarist Aaron Fink (formerly of Breaking Benjamin) organized reunion shows in 2018 and 2019, with DJ Tony Kruszka now on drums and Mike Morgan, seen earlier with Pan.a.ce.a, coming on as their bassist. In March, Lifer released their first new single in 18 years, “The Start of Something Else,” and followed it up with “Born Again” in June, two excellent songs included in this 40-minute set that show just how much life is truly left in this project. While Coyle is now a member of Cold and Fink has joined Earshot, both national acts that will tour when venues can open safely again, this remains their hometown band, which means they had to close with their most well-known single, “Boring.”

“Where there’s a will, we’ll find music,” Coyle said. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way, so here we are.”

“Come Together” only came together because of the strong wills of so many people, from Nardone, Jump, and Mohegan Sun Arena General Manager Will Beekman to all the artists willing to volunteer their talent to the people pulling their cars in to try something different. Credit also goes to the crew who made all this run smoothly for over five hours and the arena staff who enforced state guidelines, kept people socially distanced, and consistently cleaned restrooms and other public areas. Before this concert, skeptics whined and complained about restrictions or laughed at the very idea of drive-in concerts, but the arena showed NEPA that this could be done and done well, so the crowds only increased the next two nights for Queen tribute band Almost Queen and comedian Jim Gaffigan.

More people should have attended the opening night of the “Live from the Lot” series and supported local music and the venues that host them, but Nardone hinted that there’s other opportunities coming this summer and fall, most notably a possible Menzingers homecoming. If this was it, though, it was refreshing to see local bands treated like the real rock stars they are on a real stage with professional lights, sound, and giant screens – and it was a treat to see live music in person at all. It’s something we all took for granted before the pandemic – let’s learn something from all this and be far more appreciative of all the great musicians we have right here in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

If you missed out, check out the photo galleries below and consider donating to the “Come Together” GoFundMe campaign or bidding on the eBay auction to help raise additional funds for this worthy cause.

Photos by Scott Kucharski Photography/NEPA Scene

Masked portraits by Jason Riedmiller Photography/NEPA Scene