By ALAN K. STOUT
102.3-FM, THE MOUNTAIN
LUZERNE - It was a good feeling to have gone out last night to catch the debut performance of Stardog Champion, and to have had to circle around the block a few times looking for a parking spot. This show, clearly, had a buzz to it. And when you consider how much the musicians in this new project have meant to the NEPA music scene, I was happy about that. The buzz was well deserved. And when the band hit the stage at 11 p.m., the biggest expectation was met.
Simple: They had good songs. Really good songs.
And really, that was probably one of the few questions going into the night. Featuring former members of Breaking Benjamin, Lifer and Drama Club, there was no question as to whether or not they'd be great players and entertaining performers. Everybody knew that going in. And so, even though everyone was seeing the group for the very first time, it wasn't like there were several hundred people standing there with their arms folded, sizing them up. These guys already had fans. And these folks had come for a good time. Guitarist Aaron Fink and bassist Mark James, who sold millions of records with Breaking Benjamin over the past decade, certainly have fans. Nick Coyle, a longtime fixture on the local music scene, also has fans. His former band, Drama Club, recorded some great songs ("November" remains a favorite) and he, Fink and James - with the group Lifer - were all previously signed to Universal Records. And the band's drummer, Josh Karis of Leroy Justice, is also a talented musician and has also toured the entire nation.
Again, these guys have chops. And fans.
What Saturday night's show at Brews Brothers West revealed is that they also have chemistry and some really good modern-rock tunes. The group's debut EP, "Exhale" - released just days ago - offers a fine mix of punch and melody. (One must wonder if the EP's title is reflective of the sense of relief the band's members might now be feeling, particularly Fink and James, whose previous squabbles with Breaking Benjamin vocalist Ben Burnley are well documented.) The lead single, "When We Fall" is an explosive, radio-ready track (currently in rotation on 102.3-FM, The Mountain) and was met with enthusiastic approval. Other songs from the EP, such as "Aphrodite" and "The Switch" also held the crowd captive.
And that - despite the band's member's accomplished track records - is not an easy thing to do. To have a large number of people ready, eager and willing to digest new material for the first time in the live setting is something that, frankly, I've only seen a small handful of bands ever pull off. Add Stardog Champion to the list.
Musically, everything was there. The guitars soared, the bass rattled your guts and Coyle was in fine form as both a vocalist and frontman. And despite the harder edge to the music, the show was fun. There were spot-on covers of The Beatles' "Helter Skelter," U2's "Bullet The Blue Sky" and Living Colour's "Cult of Personality." A few female dancers, wearing white masks and form-fitting body suits, joined the group on stage for a number, and though it was both sexy and quirky and added some interesting flavor to the show, it was not - at all - your typical "strippers-on-stage-with-the band-thing" that we've all seen a hundred times. The girls were fully clothed; it was more in the vein of something you might have expected from the late Robert Palmer or even Tool. And for Stardog Champion, it worked.
There were also bouncing balls. At one point, about a half a dozen large inflated balls made their way out over the crowd, and - to the beat of the music - fans whacked them high in the air and around the room to one another. It was very Rolling Stones-esque and it all contributed to the sense that this show, though the first for the band, was indeed a celebration. The fact that so many people frequently held their cell-phones in the air snapping photos and shooting video also contributed to that feel.
In addition to music fans, Stardog Champion also brought out musicians. The crowd was peppered with prominent members of other local bands, music journalists (The Weekender and Highway 81 Revisited) and the Gallery of Sound. And the group was introduced by Freddi Fabbri, the longtime area DJ, now with 102.3-FM, who has always had a special relationship with some of the band's members and, 12 years ago, was one of the people who helped break Breaking Benjamin not only on radio, but also, fittingly, in the same club where Saturday's event was held.
"Do you like new beginnings?" Fabbri asked the crowd.
Clearly, the answer was yes.
So much of it simply felt right, and I got an early indication that it might be a good night. About 20 minutes before showtime, I asked Coyle if he was nervous.
"Not at all," he said with an assuring smile. "I'm ready to get out there and rock."
Already looking forward to the next show. Already looking forward to spinning a few more tracks from the EP on the radio.
(Alan K. Stout's "Music On The Menu Live" can be heard every Sunday night from 8-9 p.m. on 102.3-FM, The Mountain. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org)