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LIVE sells the drama in epic, hit-filled ACL Fest set

Bryan Rolli

Credit to LIVE’s consummate showmanship and seemingly endless collection of hits that their Saturday afternoon set at ACL managed to be muscularly epic, subtly spiritual and completely out-of-place all at once.

The York, Pennsylvania outfit’s brand of melodramatic stadium rock goes tragically underrepresented at this festival, whose patrons would much rather turn up to Chance the Rapper or ugly-cry to Angel Olsen than pump their fists to post-grunge anthems that topped the charts when they were still in diapers. Still, the mid-sized audience inevitably succumbed to the treasure trove of hits from the band’s 1994 breakout album, “Throwing Copper,” which sold a staggering eight million copies in the United States alone and spawned chest-pumping anthems “All Over You,” “I Alone” and “Lightning Crashes.” Frankly, they don’t make ’em like this anymore.

LIVE understood their place among the lineup, and they dutifully served these hits in succession, rewarding the diehard fans in the middle of the crowd and winning over the skeptics on the outskirts. Guitarist Chad Taylor wrung robust power chords from his Les Paul as singer Ed Kowalczyk prowled the stage and ascended the drum riser, reprising his role as a shaved-head, alpha-male Bono. The 46-year-old singer had good reason to wear sunglasses at a daytime festival, but you know damn well he still would’ve kept them on if they were headlining an arena at sundown.

Kowalczyk eyed the audience hungrily as an orchestral backing track swelled to introduce the band’s 1999 hit “The Dolphin’s Cry” (the title of which tells you everything you need to know about mainstream rock radio at the turn of the century). He spread his arms wide and dropped to his knees to drive home the transcendent chorus: “See the road rise up to meet us / It’s in the air we breathe tonight / Love will lead us, she wil lead us!”

Indeed, something was in the air during the band’s masterful performance—and no, I don’t mean drugs. That something was gratitude, as the Kowalczyk split acrimoniously from his bandmates in 2009 and only rejoined them last year. But the frontman had no interest in airing their dirty laundry onstage.

“We took a little break from LIVE, but oh, you know, whatever,” Kowalczyk said jokingly. “I don’t even give a shit what the story is anymore. We’re back!”

Back indeed, and with a vengeance, as they tore through their hit-filled discography with the same vigor as in their heyday. Kowalczyk’s full-throated roar and tender vibrato took front-and-center on originals and covers alike, including a powerful take on Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” and a tender rendition of Chris Cornell’s “I Am the Highway.”

As they geared up for their logical set-closer “Lightning Crashes,” Kowalczyk left the audience with words of encouragement. “I’m gonna put this song out as a prayer, that this world realizes that we are one,” he said to yelps of recognition and approval. “We are brothers and sisters in that oneness. I love you guys so much. Thanks again.”

LiVE sold the drama in their Saturday performance, and the audience lapped it up. But they also sold something bigger: a call for unity, a balm for a troubled spirit, and a promise of life after death.