BETHLEHEM, PA (CelebrityAccess) – I received a media pass for a live show review and short Q&A with Staind frontman and Country Music Singer/Songwriter Aaron Lewis weeks before his acoustic An American Patriot Tour stop at the Wind Creek Event Center in Bethlehem, PA, on Wednesday (April 19).
I arrived at the venue and got questioned by security for about 30 seconds until I had Ben [Kitterman, Lewis’ manager] on the phone. Once I had that All Access pass around my neck, the rest was cake.
Kitterman was my first in-person contact with anyone from Lewis’ camp. He was friendly, engaging, and highly respectful. However, as laid-back as he was – he was aware of all that was going on around him … astute as hell. I did get the disclaimer before he jetted off to LA for industry business, “We don’t grant this type of access often.”
After a wait, I was summoned by Lewis’ tour manager, Pete Ricci, that he was ready to talk. I don’t know what I expected walking to his bus, but I know it wasn’t what I got. Instead, I was welcomed in with open arms … literally. Maybe he sensed my hesitation at being in “his space,” but that evaporated at his welcoming.
You first notice that the bus walls are filled with military and first responder patches – Army, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Navy, fire, police – you name it. Patches that were willingly given to him by those who fought and earned them.
That was my first observation of Lewis – that the man is not a fake – he practices what he preaches in his songs, loves his country, and supports military/first responders. In casual conversation, Lewis told me he feels honored and humbled every time a patch is given to him and that there are more in boxes – waiting to be hung on bus walls.
He was extremely warm, approachable, and down to earth, not at all what they sometimes paint him out to be in the trades.
This was supposed to be six questions, but it became much more. With his American Spirit cigarette pack sitting on the table, one between his fingers, and a cup of coffee, he smiled at me and waited for my cue. MY CUE – So, I began, and it felt like I was catching up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in a few …
In an interview with the LA Times, you said, “I don’t write songs to escape life.” So, what does Aaron Lewis do to escape life – what does your mental health break look like? I know you hunt and fish …
You just answered it. I mean, that is what I do. I get away from it all. I go to nature, and if you can’t find God in the woods, you aren’t looking hard enough.
Do you ever turn to any other artists’ music for that escape? As fans, many of us turn to music, TV, or movies to escape the bills on the kitchen table.
Not really, no. I’ve got a weird thing where I don’t listen to much music because I’m afraid it will creep in and make it so that my songs sound like someone else’s. So, I try not to. If I am listening to the radio or something, it’s talk radio, podcasts, or political stuff. I don’t get the same mental break from listening to music.
Is that because you’re a singer/songwriter?
Maybe, I don’t know, but I don’t. I don’t know if that’s the case with all musicians. I can just speak for myself on that one. I don’t listen to music very often. But, you know, when I do, I am in the car with my kids when I am listening to what they’re listening to – you know, the newest f*cking craze on the street.
They don’t put Dad’s music on in the car. (He has three teenage daughters)
Laughing, he looks me dead in the eyes – “NO.”
What motivates you to stay on the road – away from your family, wife, and daughters? What motivates you to keep going?
The empty void inside of me that I’m continually trying to fill.
Really. That’s very real.
The void isn’t filled by songwriting or the connection with the fans. Let’s go here. What gives you the most joy? What is your favorite part of the “music industry machine?” Is it sitting in a studio or connecting with someone in the audience who may be crying at a lyric you wrote?
It’s the live show, the fans, the connection.
How do you keep the ego in check? First, you must be very aware of the power you hold when you’re on stage.
I don’t say anything on stage that I can’t back up with proof or fact. That’s very important.
And I’m sure you realize your effect on people whenever you sit on the stool or take the mic at center stage. Tonight’s show is nearly sold out.
Music still holds a lot of power.
So, for your latest album, Frayed at Both Ends, you were in the studio with Dan Tyminski and Vince Gill, among others. How was that for you?
I love them both.
You typically write solo – is collaboration a lot different for you?
I’ve embraced the idea of having my friends write songs with me. They aren’t strangers. It’s not just someone that I’ve hired to help me write. It’s a person that knows me, how I think and what my inner workings are.
So, this wasn’t a label thing … it was an Aaron thing?
It is. These are all my choices.
What is your preference?
I’m getting to the point where writing on my own is, honestly, a really painful process.
Well, having someone write with me dilutes it a little for me.
It dilutes what? The pain from pulling from your head, the memories only you know.
Yeah, that and, you know, I compartmentalize everything. So, when I go up there on stage or when it’s time to write songs, and I start opening the drawers of my compartmentalization, I don’t have the same control over how much comes pouring out as I used to. So, it takes me time to process and recover and put all that back to re-compartmentalize and put it back in my brain and create a situation where I can now sing the song I wrote – without crumbling on stage in front of everybody.
Is there a song thus far where that has happened? Where have you gotten emotional on stage, regardless of how many times you’ve performed it before?
No, because I put it away. I’ve only had that happen once.
So, singing it, it’s back here (motioning to the back of my brain). You know what it means to you; you know where it came from, but singing it …
I can sing it as if someone else wrote it and not feel it and not be destroyed by the content of the song.
Which song? You said that happened one time – care to share?
“The Story That Never Ends”
I was playing a local show where I live in Massachusetts, and it was a show that would’ve usually been packed, but a lot of stuff happened leading up to the show in town. I get to a line (in the song) that directly points out this bar in Worthington – where my house is. Over the years, people would get fired up and cheer me on when that line came up, but that night, it was fucking crickets.
My bottom lip started quivering, and my compartmentalization drawer flew open in my fucking brain … and I don’t know, it’s the craziest thing; they (the audience) picked up on it. They felt it, and they sang the entire song for me. To this day, that show has never made it to YouTube, and a video has never been posted. It’s nowhere.
They sang the entire song for me after they graciously let me walk off stage and have Luke, my guitar player at the time, come out on stage and do a song – while I went backstage and completely lost my shit for the rest of that song. So, this is what I mean when I say I can compartmentalize and turn it off because, by the end of the music that Luke played, I went back out there and played another 7 or 8 songs and was okay.
Were you fine?
Completely fine – as if it never happened.
Is Massachusetts your favorite place to play?
The Grand Ole Opry because of how much it means. It’s the only venue where I get nervous.
One song on the Frayed album always stood out to me – “Pull Me Under.” This is the one song on the record that you wrote alone. So, I must ask, where did that come from – the inspiration for that song?
“Pull Me Under” is one of those word-vomit songs (chuckles). I don’t know where it came from … it just came out, came out fast and in a puddle of fucking tears and wrecked me for the whole rest of the record. It was the first song written, and from there, I was like, where do I go from here? So, um, yeah, Ira, you want to write a song with me? Hey Matt, wanna write a song with me? David or Dan, wanna write a song? I still don’t know what it is about that song, but it just spoke … fucked me up more.
So, what new music is forthcoming? I’ve heard a new Staind album AND a new solo effort.
The Staind album is in production.
When should we expect that?
I don’t know … Ben is the mad scientist, and Oz behind the curtain. He’s trying to time everything, but I believe in the Fall. (He then offers to play me some new tracks off the record).
Is the solo effort in the same genre as your past albums? Can we expect more Country music from Aaron Lewis, the solo artist?
Eh, it’s hard to put it into a genre. It’s in the same form – I’m just a singer and a songwriter doing what I do. So, it doesn’t really fit into one genre specifically. But, since I’ve been spending all this time on the road, I’ve written and recorded two records – the Staind album and my solo record.
And the solo record will be out soon?
So, you’ve been “somewhat” open with the media about your mental health issues and things that you’ve been through.
Mmmm. Not really.
And that is why I said somewhat … Your hit, “It’s Been Awhile,” is one of the Top 5 Recovery songs for those who struggle with addiction. But, listening to those lyrics, that song could be taken a thousand different ways. Was it about substance abuse, a woman, or something else entirely?
“That’s so cool” (regarding the track being a recovery song). ‘It’s Been Awhile’ was just a random collection of thoughts I had … it’s been a while since … since whatever is in your past. I’m a human being, and I’m addicted to many things – absolutely. It doesn’t have to be a drug; it doesn’t have to be alcohol; it doesn’t have to be a chemical substance.
You can be addicted to chaos, addicted to the pain, addicted to the road. But, aside from maybe weed, I’ve successfully navigated my way through recreational drug use over my lifetime. I’ve never been addicted to anything or out of control with any of the substances I’ve touched recreationally.
Porn, food, drugs, chaos, it doesn’t matter. It’s the dopamine hit and the chemicals your brain release – people figure out a way to fucking make those chemicals release.
I’ve read you smoke a joint on your way to the stage, and it hasn’t failed you yet.
Yes, I do (chuckling).
Well, that’s an accurate rockstar way of putting things.
I mean, listen, if I am being honest, I don’t warm up. I don’t warm down – no sound check for most shows.
So, nothing special for that multi-million dollar selling baritone you carry around?
Well, I do; I am right now (takes a drag).
I am well over six questions, but the vibe is good, so I continue.
What can we expect from an Aaron Lewis show?
Well, it won’t be the wildest show you’ve ever seen me play because I tone things down a bit as I’m pushing and promoting something else. It has nothing to do with my opinion, mouth, or political songs. It’s about respecting the other band members on stage with me. They weren’t around for my base awakening, and they haven’t been around for me expressing it on stage … and I don’t feel they should be forced into dealing with it now.
At this time, we were interrupted by other guests who wanted Lewis’ attention for a moment. However, I was never made to feel like a bother … especially when he said – “Shit, I have other guests coming. Are you okay? I’m sorry. Do you have or need tickets?
Still, he wanted to play me snippets of the unreleased music coming from the Staind album … and Lewis being a man that’s followed his own path – that’s precisely what he did.
I won’t detail the tracks he played, the names, or the processes used to write and create the songs. We shall save that for the release.
He also took the time to play me some solo stuff – Song No. 1 he played, which I won’t reveal the title – will resonate whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican (or fall somewhere in the middle). The lyrics speak to people – it speaks to the human condition.
In the blink of an eye, Ricci handed me my ticket from will call so I didn’t have to hunt it down. It was closer to show time than I thought.
I left that interview not knowing how to feel or what to write … but it didn’t matter – he was about to take the stage and give Wind Creek precisely what they paid to see … and feel.
_____Live Show Review_____
I left the tour bus and headed to my seat in the 2,550-capacity, almost sold-out Wind Creek Event Center – formerly the Sands Casino Resort. The Bethlehem, PA, venue, nestled in the heart of the Lehigh Valley, is operated by Wind Creek Hospitality, owned by the Poarch Creek Indians.
Over the next few hours, Lewis and his two bandmates, sitting on simple stools, performed as if they were sitting at a backyard BBQ and knew the names of each person there. It was intimate and personal. There were no pyrotechnics, no distractions, just Lewis, his pack of smokes, his bandmates, a couple of guitars, and us.
The set list included most of his solo releases, but he threw in several Staind hits. He started the show with “Sinner” and then led into fan favorites, “Granddaddy’s Gun” and “Everybody Talks to God.”
He then pulled out the unreleased song, “Let’s Go Fishing,” he’s done numerous shows before but can’t be found on any album. Some would call it another one of Lewis’s “right-wing political viewpoint” songs. I call it a song just like any other written in songwriting history – it will resonate with some and not with others.
He then played “Lost and Lonely” and “Kill Me Like You Love Me” before launching into a small set of cover snippets.
It was refreshing to see Lewis smiling while on stage, letting loose and chuckling at himself as he played the small clips for the people who paid to come and see him – his friends for the night.
They included “So Far Away” (Staind), “Summer of 69” (Bryan Adams), “I Want It That Way” (Backstreet Boys), Careless Whisper (Wham), an even smaller snippet of “If I Could Turn Back Time” (Cher), and a fantastic cover of “She Talks to Angels” (The Black Crowes).
Even though it was a cover, “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette was a stand-out because, for a man as intense as he can be at times … he had a smirk on his face. He was seemingly laughing at himself as he sat up a little straighter to reach the higher notes of the song. But, at that moment, he was having a great time on that stool, knowing exactly where he was, who he was with and what he was doing – while enjoying every minute of it.
At the beginning of the Staind hit, “Outside,” he stopped his guitar and said good-naturedly into the microphone, “You’re supposed to sing the words when I forget,” as he started the song again.
Throughout the show, I did not detect any tension within the audience. However, when Lewis raised his right hand, putting his two fingers and thumb in the air in a “quiet down” motion, you could get the sense they knew he’d been in the press for walking off the stage due to frustrations with the crowd in the past.
The show continued without interruption except for a few “SHHHHHH” from fans. On the flip side of that, he called for audience participation more than once and when he waved his arm for the audience to sing louder or yelled, “Come on!” into the microphone – the crowd happily obliged.
Lewis is aware of the vibe coming from the audience and hears those yells – even if you don’t think he does. He’s very cognizant – even though he performed most of the show with his eyes closed. He’s been known to come up with some creative comebacks in response to audience members’ disturbances. However, Wind Creek’s audience was the opposite of rebellious and unruly.
At one point, Lewis dropped his guitar pick after throwing some to the audience; no problem, he just leaned over to where his cigarette sat smoldering in the ashtray and grabbed another.
The years had not taken a toll on Lewis’ vocals as he unleashed the beast on “It’s Been Awhile,” and the audience loved it – telling them, “I wrote this song when no one gave a fuck.”
For the last song of the night, he asked the audience, “Are you gonna sing every fucking word with me,” as the guitar began for “Am I the Only One.”
Lewis enjoys what he does, not even picking up his guitar for the encore song. Instead, he swayed back and forth on the stool as the fans in the audience sang the words for him, and he reveled in the moment. He turned his ear to the crowd at one point and quipped, “You all fucked up,” while laughing. It was as if he was sitting back at a live show, enjoying his cigarette, and hearing the words he wrote sung back to him.
It was an Aaron Lewis show, so some colorful political commentary was thrown out from the stage throughout the night, but nothing over the top or offensive. It’s common knowledge Lewis doesn’t like our current Commander-in-Chief. That is his opinion and his show. That’s the beautiful thing about the USA; he’s free to say that, just as you’re free to disagree with it – should that be your choice.
Most music fans can love and appreciate a singer/songwriter’s efforts, fall in love with a song, learn every word and not care about whom that artist voted for in the last election. In fact, I felt that most of the audience followed as he jumped from one genre to another.
Standing at the merchandise booth, I came across a fan named Heather from Indiana. We chatted, and I asked her, “What originally drew you in as a fan and what keeps you a fan.” She said it was his voice the first time she heard the song “Epiphany” by Staind and saw him in concert for the first time in 2012. She said she met him, and at that time, he explained the song was related to his battle with ADD, which she also suffers from, and that is what keeps her around as a fan – that “he’s so emotional with every song, every time.”
Should Lewis’ political beliefs have anything to do with the talent flowing from his fingers and how he has used that amazing instrument known as his voice over his decades-long career? Should his political beliefs erase the fact that he’s one of the few artists who have successfully flipped from one genre to another? No – I certainly don’t think so.
Staind’s latest single drop “Lowest In Me” from their upcoming album Confessions of the Fallen, is now Top 10 at Active Rock Radio – so there are surely others who agree with me.
I get it – Aaron Lewis is polarizing, and you may not like all that comes out of his mouth, but he’s also fallible and, most importantly, a human being.
In the days of cancel culture, Americans sometimes forget those terms … fallible, human, and flawed. Just because Lewis is a multi-platinum-selling singer/songwriter doesn’t mean he knows it all or is always right.
It means he’s a passionate, talented musician who writes about the things that are important to him and brings you along for the ride … everyone trying to find their way in a country that can, at times … be difficult to navigate – regardless of if you’re Left, Right, Blue or Red.
Patriotism can be displayed a lot of different ways – a small child waving a flag at a parade, giving up your seat to the man next to you wearing the WWII Vet hat, voting – and this is Lewis’ way – singing about those who came before him and gave their lives so that he can sit on that stage free to chain smoke in a non-smoking concert venue.
Aaron Lewis is many things – NOT just his political opinions. Whether you agree with his politics or not, there’s no denying the man writes from the heart, believes every word he belts out on stage and wears his thoughts and opinions on his sleeve. Subtlety has never been his strong point. I went to review an Aaron Lewis show and left pleasantly surprised.
His musical transformation from the head of the nu-metal band Staind to him sitting on a stool chain-smoking in an acoustic set AND back again shows that life isn’t about the destination but the journey. However, I can’t help but think his journey has been more painful and complex than most. I hope that one day, that void he speaks of finally gets filled.