For more than 20 years singer and guitarist Aaron Lewis' powerful, rolling baritone voice has carried fans on a personal journey into his life through songs of acceptance, consequences, depression, love, and family--both with the alternative metal band Staind and most recently his solo country ballads.
Friday night, in the close-quarters setting of the sold-out showroom at Talking Stick Resort, Lewis mingled with the crowd, smoked cigarettes, drank whiskey, and provided a moving, intimate and informal acoustic event.
Outside of the showroom the slot machines rang and casino dealers were turning over house-favoring blackjack hands; the usual casino madness was in full swing, but Lewis' audience was none the wiser as they sat patiently, waiting for the performance to begin. Shortly after eight Lewis emerged onto the darkened stage to a roar of cheers. Sauntering toward his microphone, leaving a vapor trail of smoke in his wake from a cigarette dangling loosely in his mouth, Lewis snagged his acoustic guitar off its stand and slung it over his shoulder.
The spotlights rose to illuminate Lewis, wearing a camouflage hat, a thick graying beard, and a Metallica World Tour t-shirt. Four band members took their places on stage, and after resting the burning cigarette in an ashtray atop a small table near his microphone, Lewis and his band dove into the first song of what would be a two-and-a-half hour set list full of original country tracks, Staind renditions, and various covers.
Kicking it off with a handful of country songs, including the radio single "Granddaddy's Gun," Lewis' powerful voice filled every inch of the room as he sang about living and loving. The performance was in no way the typical event that sold out Staind's headlining tours in the early 2000's, but it was also far different from the pop-infused country concerts dominating the mainstream today. Frankly, it was superior to both.
"I've caught a lot of shit for this next one," said Lewis at one point. "I find it funny, since it's my fucking song." That song was the country version of "Mudshovel" off of the 1999 Staind album Dysfunction. The re-imagining of one of his heavier early songs was crafted masterfully and powerfully around the acoustic twang of guitars and keyboards, and by the end it was almost hard to imagine that it was ever recorded as anything but a country song--almost.
Halfway through the set, the other members of the band left the stage for a few songs allowing Lewis to stand with just him and his acoustic guitar as he told more stories from his life, joked with the audience and sang the staple Staind song "So Far Away", followed by the first verse of "Wanted Dead or Alive" by Bon Jovi.
"I don't know the rest of it," said Lewis after nailing the dead or alive chorus, "it's a good song even though it's Bon Jovi."
After a few more songs, the rest of the band rejoined Lewis on stage and continued their reign of country ballads that embodied the heartfelt style of Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels and George Strait in the 70's, 80's and 90's. During the song "Forever", about being away from his family for long periods of time, the pain and angst in Lewis' voice channeled energy reminiscent of Kris Kristofferson in the 1976 film A Star is Born.
More stories, ranging from his grandfather in WWII to his hunting experiences, were woven into the remainder of the set list, which included "Red, White & Blue" and a cover of "Long Haired Country Boy" by the Charlie Daniels Band, with the lyrics tweaked into telling the story of a tattooed country boy instead.
Upon thanking the audience in the room for 20 years of support, Lewis sang his introspective and by-now-classic song "It's Been Awhile" and then walked off stage. The crowd whistled and cheered, begging for one more song. What they got was an encore that lasted more than 30 minutes from the moment Lewis came back on stage by himself.
After talking momentarily to the audience, Lewis led off with his version of "Turn the Page" by Bob Seger. With another song down and another cigarette lit, the Crown Royal began to sink in, prompting Lewis to ask himself, "What else can I pull out of my ass?" He spent the majority of the encore playing bits and pieces of various songs, and the crowd laughed along while shouting out requests.
He dedicated "Rooster" by Alice in Chains to all the members of the military, and followed that song with a story about writing the Staind single "Outside" while staying at Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit's house skateboarding, bowlingm and getting wasted.
"God bless Fred Durst and DJ Lethal," said Lewis before playing "Outside". "They are the reason I'm up here today."
The final song of Lewis' performance was the first and most popular country song he has written so far: "Country Boy". The band came back on stage for the last song and Lewis began by taking his hat off to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
CRITICS NOTEBOOK: Last Night: Aaron Lewis at Talking Stick Resort The Crowd: A mellow and varied mix of folks. Both country lovers in cowboy hats and flannel shirts mixed with metal lovers in Pantera and Slayer t-shirts living together in harmony. Personal Bias: While looking around the crowd, it occurred to me that Aaron Lewis fits seamlessly into both fan demographics.
His metalhead-meets-country-boy persona was brought to light even more so in the hours leading up to his performance at Talking Stick Resort when Up on the Sun spoke with Lewis about everything from archery hunting, and the Grand Ole Opry to the current pulse of Staind and his body of work as a country musician.
I read that you enjoy archery hunting--I love bowhunting, myself. I'm totally a die-hard bowhunter. I had an encounter at seven yards with a 170+ [whitetail deer] two days ago. He had to take five more steps to hit the gap and I would have let all the air out of him with a rage, and he caught my camera guy moving in the tree. Can you believe that? [He was] an absolute giant, with a 10-point mainframe and stickers and tickers everywhere.
No way. Where did this happen? In Oklahoma. It was definitely a Boon & Crockett deer. I'm still sick over it that I didn't kill that deer because he caught the other guy moving. Literally five more steps and he would have been dead.
[Lewis and I lose track of time for a bit when we start swapping hunting stories with each other for the next ten minutes]
I should probably ask some music questions--I could talk all day about hunting. [Laughs] Yeah let's do it, I have a whole list to get through also.
I know that country music has always been deep in your soul. What gave you the final push to recently pursue it commercially? It's where I come from. It's the only music where I can be driving down the road and hear a song and burst into tears. I feel like country music is the music of the heartland. It's the music of the real America, not the big metropolitan areas that override real America merely because there are more of them.
It was time to do something different, and re-inspire myself. Out of all the options that I had in front of me, that one absolutely made the most sense.
Can you describe what it was like collaborating with George Jones, Charlie Daniels, and Chris Young for "Country Boy"? It was pretty surreal. Especially considering that was the first country song I had ever written. It was an amazing experience to become really good friends with Charlie and Chris.
Unfortunately, I only met George briefly, but I wasn't in the studio with him when he was doing the stuff because I had already gone home. When I was there during the week he couldn't be there because he was sick. A week or two later he came in and did his stuff when he was feeling better.
Going further into that, besides the obvious differences in their actual music, is it much different recording with country artists like those I mentioned compared to formerly collaborating with musicians like Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and Corey Taylor? No, it isn't really any different, except from the type of music. The approach is still the same. I kind of let the songs write themselves, and I've always done that.
What is your approach, and how do you channel the emotion that your music evokes? Just let it fly. The record that you're referring to, The Road, the creation and recording of it took about thirty hours. The last Staind record was closer to six months. I guess I'm just honest in my approach. I would rather expose something about myself rather than make something up.
I guess over the years with Staind, the lyrical content has more been about me picking my psychological scabs, and the country thing is more of a telling-life-stories type of a situation.
Your album The Road seems to have been received well. It stayed in the top 30 in country albums for ten months. I think it did pretty good. It never left the top 30 from when I released it last November until this September.
Were there any roadblocks in putting that album together? Just perception. The perception of me being a singer for a rock band and trying to break into the country world. My approach didn't change, aside from not having to share my creativity, and not compromising my creativity for somebody else's creativity.
What does your live performance consist of these days? Well, I'm out promoting that record, so it's going to be a primarily country show. I have a country band and the whole deal. Then, there is a breakdown moment in the middle for a few songs, and then a breakdown moment in the encore for a few songs. Other than that it's just pretty much a country show.
Are you working on another album to follow up The Road? Yep. All the material is written already, and I just have to come up with lyrics and get into the studio and record it. And getting into the studio to record it will probably happen before I come up with lyrics.
They're talking about me getting into the studio sometime in January or February.
In your career, which performance has been the most memorable? I have to say, performing at the Grand Ole Opry was pretty huge. I've done it twice. If my schedule allowed it, I would do it more. They seem to really like me there. To know that the deal at the Grand Ole Opry is by invitation only to play it, and just because you are in the country industry does not automatically get you the Grand Ole Opry...
I think it's pretty amazing that I've already played it twice, and that the invitation is permanently open for me to come back and play it again, and again. Maybe, just maybe, by the time I'm done with this country career, I'll actually be in the Grand Ole Opry Hall of Fame, and that would be pretty huge for a former rock star. It would be very huge.
What is something you know now, that you wish you would have known at the beginning of your musical career? That list is really long [laughs]. All encompassing. I'd have to say to be careful what you wish for. You hear everybody talk about how awesome this is, and how it's so cool, and everybody kind of forgets about the sacrifices that are made to do it.
I've got a wife and three kids at home that barely ever see me. I've got fans that see me more often than my family does, and there is a lot of sacrifice that goes into it. There's a lot of perpetual hard work, and it never gives you a break. So be careful what you wish for.
One more question for you, and it's the question that I'm sure you hate the most. Do you have any plans to record with Staind? Just no time soon, but yes. Staind is not defunct, we're just in hibernation.
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SET LIST: The Story Never Ends The Road Granddaddy's Gun Lessons Learned Country Shovel (Mudshovel) Jonesin' So Far Away Give it all we got Tonight Everything Changes Red, White & Blue Endless Forever Long Haired Country Boy Party in Hell It's Been Awhile Encore Turn the Page Rooster Outside Country Boy