By Jason SchreursWith all of the talk about punk scene legends Hot Water Music opening up on this tour, including elaborate shout-outs from both bands above them on the bill, this was still unquestionably Rise Against's night. Like a call to arms for the 20-year-old set, the Chicago four-piece steamrolled through blazers from their six studio albums with a backdrop of protest videos and political riot footage.
But first the little matter of Hot Water Music. There's a reason why the Florida melodic punk institution could have easily headlined this arena show themselves. Opening with "Remedy," it didn't take long for Chuck Ragan and company to command the arena stage. A few diehards on the arena floor managed to get a pit going, despite the majority of the attendees being too young to remember when punk rock meant a sweaty warehouse show somewhere in Gainesville. Concentrating mostly on material from Exister, their recent return to the top of the melodic punk heap, Hot Water Music seemed to gel with the 30-minute set. In, out, and some new minds blown. "Turnstile," one of their early era classics, sounded particularly banging.
Jersey-proud punks Gaslight Anthem had their own, slightly larger pocket of followers on the arena floor. Their set was the most understated of the night, a welcome reprieve from sweat-boxing and catching random elbows to the head. With their three guitarists, Gaslight were able to weave in some pretty impressive melodics, finishing with "Great Expectations," a near-perfect slice of punk that got everyone dancing.
Rise Against are the Energizer Bunny of punk rock. Singer and sometimes guitarist Tim Mcllrath is the bunny ringleader, bounding about the stage and hopping on monitors, his harmonizing making way to searing screaming, one perfect vocal delivery after the next. Lead guitarist Zach Blair and bass-guy Joe Principe flanked Mcllrath on either side like two guardians of precision, every one of Rise Against's songs sounding pretty much exactly like the recorded versions, which, when you're dealing with high-energy punk rock, is often exactly what you want.
Mcllrath took time mid-set to pay tribute to fallen pop-punker Tony Sly of No Use for a Name, playing a touching slideshow of Sly's career while dedicating an acoustic version of Sly's own song "For Fiona" to his memory. Then it was back into scorchers like "The Unraveling," the title track from Rise Against's debut album, and pretty much every amazing song of Siren Song for the Counter Culture ("Give It All," "The First Drop," "Life Less Frightening," etc.).
But there was something more going on here than just pure adrenaline. Rise Against's backdrop of political activism and positive contribution to the world was inspiring. And while protest music at hockey arenas is an oxymoron in many ways, it seemed that most of the moshin' youngins in the crowd were at least retaining the band's message: positive change comes from within.