Written by Anthony Toto, Photos by Keeyahtay Lewis
In the midst of my teenage foray into the realms of heavy metal, I stumbled onto Sevendust in 2003 after I caught the music video for “Enemy” on Headbanger’s Ball. During a time period where I fell in love with Pantera, the fuming shouts of “Step up to me/ Step up to me/ You wanna be a big time player/ It’s not to be? over such a disgustingly infectious groove rose my adrenaline to peak levels of intensity. Aside from its badass music video, I remember driving passed the legendary dive venue formerly known as Birch Hill in central New Jersey and seeing the words “Sevendust” advertised on the marquee for an upcoming show. Personally speaking, I thought any band that played Birch Hill must be worthy of a listen as my aunt used to tell me insane stories about the venue.
Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, Sevendust helped inspire an alternative metal scene towards the late 90s where a burst of bands including Deftones, System of a Down, and Godsmack set the precedent for mainstream metal during the early – mid 2000s. Pinheaded metal listeners still like to snob at this era sometimes stereotyped as ‘Nu-Metal’ for its commercial success, yet it remains underrated considering its undeniable impact after a second wave of bands experienced success based off the original acts’ blueprint.
Speaking of underrated, Sevendust demonstrates a level of excellence that very few acts achieve in the confines of a live performance. Sevendust is the furthest thing from prototypical rockstar bullshit. I strongly support this statement, to the point, where I challenge the reader to find a bunch of nicer guys on stage. When certain trends come and go; clarity starts to develop with longevity. Just like the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Sevendust is the people’s champ for heavy metal. After spending the past twenty years touring extensively and releasing gold-certified albums, this five-piece group undoubtedly possesses one of the most loyal fanbases in music.
Sevendust is currently in the midst of a national tour performing tracks off its latest acoustic LP Time Travelers & Bonfires. Longtime listeners cherish Sevendust’s 2004 LP Double-Wide: Acoustic Live so the group fulfilled a promise by recording an album comprised of original acoustic material and reworked classics. Hearing the fans request for nearly a decade, Sevendust teamed with crowdfunding website PledgeMusic where fan donations helped the band secure its financial goal for Time Travelers & Bonfires over a period of 24-hours. Sevendust recently brought it’s unplugged set to the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey for an absolutely mind-blowing performance possibly captured live in its entirety for a future release sometime during the holidays. To this last statement, I will remain eternally grateful towards Morgan Rose’s claim to VH1 Radio if I could relive this night once again on a highly defined video platform.
For the longest time and I’m literally talking years, I felt determined to see Sevendust live considering how much I enjoyed Chapter VII: Hope & Sorrow, Cold Day Memory, and especially Black Out The Sun. Somehow, I ran into scheduling conflicts every single time Sevendust came around to my area. One quick search on setlist.fm reveals how this is pathetic considering how often they perform in New Jersey. Strictly based off the band’s live reputation, my quench grew stronger with each missed opportunity so I absolutely refused to miss “An Acoustic Evening With Sevendust.”
As I waited on line before the doors opened, the energy felt contagious once fans packed into Starland. With no opening act, the entire night felt like an overdue hangout between Sevendust and their rabidly devoted Jersey crowd. Adding to my interest in seeing Sevendust perform, the group recorded Black Out The Sun and Time Travelers & Bonfires at Architekt Studios in Butler, New Jersey. Throughout the night, vocalist Lajon Witherspoon praised the Garden State by enthusiastically stating how New Jersey has become the band’s second home. If fans didn’t notice an extra member on stage, Witherspoon introduced Architekt’s very own Kurt Wubbenhorst on keyboards who also performed on the band’s two latest LPs. Displaying a warming sense of southern hospitality, Witherspoon reoccurring words of gratitude made the entire crowd feel right at home.
For those selective fans apprehensive to see Sevendust substitute its amplifiers for acoustics, not once did the band’s performance sacrifice its signature heaviness. In fact, the intimacy of the acoustic material allowed the setlist’s melodic depth to echo across the walls of Starland. As Witherspoon spoke about the inspiration behind “Angel’s Son,” the tears gleaming in his eyes represented real heaviness. Written in memory of late Snot vocalist Lynn Strait, Witherspoon’s heartfelt story summoned the enormity of Strait’s impact on Sevendust’s career. When the remaining members of Snot asked the group to compose a tribute for Strait, Witherspoon vividly described those pressures he overcame by refusing to let his fallen brother down. Sevendust also performed a new track called “The Wait” dedicated to John Connolly’s father. Throughout the song’s performance, Witherspoon stood next to his bandmate offering his love and support as he remarked how plenty of angels watch over the band. While different songs touched on some heavy subjects, this night served as a celebration for a band performing at peak levels in the present. If you wanted to laugh, there were plenty of hysterical moments. If you wanted to cry after hearing Witherspoon’s words of wisdom, the timing felt appropriate to let those tears fall.
Atop of the list of highlights were the band’s interpretations of various metal and rock classics. Sevendust songwriting extraordinaire Clint Lowery kicked into the blazing riffs of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Bark At The Moon,” Iron Maiden’s “Where Eagles Dare,” and Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.” Even after hearing some of my all-time favorite songs, my personal favorite rendition occurred when Kurt Wubbenhorst played the piano intro for Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose.” As someone who repeatedly listened to the Batman Forever soundtrack in 1995, I couldn’t even describe how awesome it felt to hear Lajon sing away during the chorus. Seriously, even Val Kilmer and Jim Carrey would give Sevendust two thumbs up. Keeping the hysteria alive, Lowery sang some brutal death growls over Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” as Witherspoon recounted how much it would suck to lose your girlfriend because someone else wrote a hit song about her. Just as the band couldn’t get a better reaction, they kicked into Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” where the audience just sang away for a solid two-minutes.
The setlist included a wide selection of older tracks from 1997’s self-titled debut, 1999’s Home, 2001’s Animosity, and 2003’s Seasons. From my perspective, seeing the group consistently interact with the crowd truly demonstrated each member’s high character. Aside from tossing guitar picks and cheering along with the audience, Clint Lowery is way under the radar in terms of guitar playing and vocals as he sang during “X-Mas Day” and Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Hurt.” Bassist Vince Hornsby and guitarist John Connolly mingled with the audience and held their performance together while the echo of their chords fervently rang. My complaint with most unplugged shows revolves around the drummer sounding way too relaxed on stage. Well, Morgan Rose completely nullifies the acoustic standard as he relentlessly bashed away at his drumkit as if the amps were cranked up to eleven. I’d argue nobody looks cooler while holding down such a solid groove. If they sold Morgan Rose’s stage presence in a package, I’d buy a bundle just to play the drums like him.
Once again, I’m not trying to sound repetitive but Lajon Witherspoon is so underrated as a frontman that it’s nearly infuriating. His one-of-a-kind voice pierced with such delicate sincerity and visceral power. The acoustic ambience highlighted his breathtaking range as he effortlessly summoned some incredible notes. Without hesitation, Witherspoon’s name should appear atop of the list of best vocalists in metal, especially among his late 90s/early 2000s contemporaries Chino Moreno, Corey Taylor, and Serj Tankian. Being fortunate enough to see legends like Bruce Dickinson, James Hetfield, and Ronnie James Dio live, I fully standby stating that Witherspoon ranks right up there in terms of command, reliability, and inspiration. His stage presence should serve as a wake-up call to the countless number of generic frontman flooding metal and rock right now. Truth be told, Sevendust would blow most bands off the stage. When a band like Sevendust demonstrates such enthusiasm for writing and performing after twenty-years, it showcases how it’s possible to stay true to yourself and find success by doing what you love.
As I near the conclusion of my review, I’d like to point out one last story that occurred during the night. Witherspoon reflected on his upbringing in Nashville by mentioning how he once drove passed Johnny Cash’s home and became ‘wowed’ by the sight of his big mansion and leopard-coated car. While saying he’d love to have Cash’s fortune, he received the best gift Johnny Cash ever received and that’s the power of music. Displaying a sense of humbleness that the average band just doesn’t showcase on stage, he passionately stated how he wants to take the Starland crowd out on tour in the future. He promised to repay Sevendust’s loyal Jersey fanbase for their countless years of dedication as he assured his listeners that this band would always be here with them forever.