Pretty much everything about the concert — from the head-banging guys to the screaming girls begging to be lifted onstage — resembled a routine Puddle of Mudd show. Except that the stage was four flatbeds pushed together, and the venue was a soccer stadium in Tikrit, Iraq.
On September 12, in front of 1,500 U.S. troops, the band played the ruins of what was once a symbol of Saddam Hussein's dictatorial rule. "It was kind of weird that this person was holding people down ... at this stadium," said guitarist Paul Phillips, "and we go back and have this show and it's all about freedom."
Months prior to Puddle of Mudd's performance, the U.S. military polled its troops in Iraq to find out which band they most wanted to see perform there. They chose Puddle of Mudd, and the band immediately accepted the offer.
"[Our managers] were like, 'Do you want to go to Iraq?' " bassist Douglas Ardito remembered. "And me and [singer] Wes [Scantlin] look at each other and were like, 'Yeah!' We didn't even think twice about it."
Though the soldiers were told about the show three weeks in advance, most were skeptical right up until showtime.
"They said half the soldiers on the bases didn't believe them when they said we were coming," Ardito said. "They were like, 'They're not going to come here,' because so many people have backed out after saying the right thing."
"I think a lot of it has to do with a lot of these artists and bands living pretty high on the hog," offered Scantlin. "It's not luxurious when you're over there. You're breathing sand through the air. It's like 130 degrees, and it's not for artists that chill in, you know, super-super-nice houses."
Puddle of Mudd were up for the challenge, heading first to Germany, where they played two shows for troops stationed there. During that stop they met a soldier who'd just been wounded in Iraq by a roadside bomb, and it drove home the reality of the situation they were headed into.
The soldier, who'd lost his eyes and most of his left arm, was awarded the Bronze Star, which he gave to the band at a meet-and-greet in Friedberg. "I just cried," said drummer Greg Upchurch.
After flying into Kuwait City, Kuwait, and having a particularly disconcerting conversation with a security guard in the airport ("Don't let your guard down," he warned Ardito) the band traveled to Tikrit.
Before a crowd featuring a throng of female soldiers dancing and tossing their hair, Puddle of Mudd played a set that ended with the hit single "She Hates Me." During the final song, Scantlin invited three women wearing "We Want Up" shirts to come onstage. Before he knew it, he said, 25 to 30 people were behind him. "At the end of the song, all of the girls, everybody, just stage-dived into the crowd."
Before leaving Tikrit, Puddle of Mudd accepted an invitation to come back and perform again. "War is scary," said Upchurch, "but when you're with these people, it's like you're a part of their family, so they make you feel very comfortable."
"I'm not scared anymore," said Scantlin. "We met a lot of amazing people, and we all learned a lot about things we didn't know about, so at the end of the day, I think we'd all go back."
— Alyssa Rashbaum, with additional reporting by Gideon Yago