SAYREVILLE, New Jersey — This small Jersey 'burb is pretty far removed from Banda Aceh or Phuket (and even though it's Jon Bon Jovi's hometown, it's pretty far removed from Manhattan, too). But on Wednesday night, Sayreville played host to the first in a series of benefit shows dubbed the Concerts for Tsunami Relief. It was a big show for an even bigger cause.
The concert — co-sponsored by Linkin Park's Music for Relief charity and New York radio giant K-Rock — was held at the Starland Ballroom, a very un-ballroom-like venue just off of Sayreville's winding Jernee Mill Road, across the street from the VFW hall and down the road from Dunkin' Donuts. In other words, just about in the middle of nowhere.
But the cause brought out the best and the brightest of emotional rock: the lineup for Wednesday's show read like an attendance sheet at emo's elite private academy. Taking Back Sunday, My Chemical Romance, and Coheed and Cambria topped the marquee, with local heroes Senses Fail and the Banner, plus New York's Like Yesterday rounding out the bill. Demand for tickets was so high among the hoodie-and-studded-belt set that the show sold out in less than five minutes, and tickets were going for as much as $200 on eBay.
The concert raised almost $75,000 for Music for Relief and UNICEF (K-Rock also kicked in an additional $20,000), and eager kids from as far away as Arizona and Maryland braved the cold Jersey climate to catch the A-list lineup. Upon entering the sweltering Starland, most of the crowd members shed their winter coats, revealing an impressive array of tats and ironic T's. While the Banner and Like Yesterday ran through their 25-minute sets (a mandate from above, since there were six bands on the bill and, as one Starland bouncer put it, "It is a school night"), most milled about, snapping up commemorative T-shirts and posters, smoking cigarettes or nuzzling with their sweeties in the corner.
But when Senses Fail appeared, all attention shifted stageward. They ripped through a blistering and inspired set of their self-proclaimed "New Jersey homicide-core," and lead singer Buddy Nielsen (rocking an impressive "Karate Kid" style headband) made the evening's first — and only — political statement.
"President Bush is a billionaire, and do you know how much money he donated to tsunami victims?" he asked, mic cocked high. "That compassionate conservative gave $10,000. We're gonna give more money here that that p---- did!"
Coheed and Cambria followed, and though they failed to match Nielsen's colorful language, they did manage to enrage in a different way: by being willfully difficult.
The crowd was amped for a set of Coheed's spaced-out sci-fi rock, chanting the band's name and thrusting fists in the air. What they got instead, as frizzy-haired frontman Claudio Sanchez put it, was "a rehearsal."
Currently holed up in a Woodstock studio, writing material for the follow-up to 2003's In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3, Coheed used their slot as a glorified trial run, opening with three new tunes (one of which was a powerful, epic and bottom-heavy guitar assault). The crowd, hoping to hear songs it knew, was less than enthused, and the audience's tepid response drew a curse-filled tirade from bassist Mike Todd.
"I don't know why you're not applauding that last one," he snarled. "That song was f---ing awesome."
It was an interesting approach to raising tsunami-relief funds, to be sure.
My Chemical Romance opted to go the opposite direction: They left the audience wanting more. Taking the stage with the lights turned low (just about the only subdued moment in their "more-is-more" set), MCR were soon working the crowd to a fever pitch, with guitarist Frank Iero flailing and slamming into everything while head-goth Gerard Way leaped, spat and probably made more gun-to-the-head gestures in a 25-minute set than anyone in music history.
Way thanked the crowd for its "compassion" before MCR closed their too-quick set with their current single, "I'm Not Okay (I Promise)," which sent crowd-surfers helicoptering through the air and even had the Starland's bald-and-beefy bouncers singing along. As they left the stage to squealing feedback, the crowd chanted for "One more song!"
But nearly as soon as the chanting stopped, the evening's headliners, Taking Back Sunday, stormed the stage, and all was right inside Starland. Frontman Adam Lazzara seemed genuinely upset by the tsunami disaster, repeatedly telling the audience members how grateful he was that they came, thanking them for their generosity and telling them that he loved them all. Whether or not the crowd was actually touched is a matter of debate, but there was no question about its response to TBS' set. With fists raised skyward, fans sang along lustily to old songs, and got beyond riled up when the band reeled off the two singles from its Where You Want to Be album, "A Decade Under the Influence" and "This Photograph Is Proof (I Know You Know)."
And in the end, it probably didn't matter that none of the artists offered up a soliloquy or a moment of silence for the tsunami victims, or that the crowd seemed more interested in singing, moshing and laughing than in being serious. The bands had logged the miles and made the commitment, and the crowd devoured the tickets and the merchandise.
And, like Lazzara said as Taking Back Sunday thundered through their set, "Sometimes it's good to be so close to friends."
The Starland Ballroom is also hosting tsunami benefits on Friday and Sunday.
To learn more about what you can do for the tsunami-relief effort, see "Tsunami Relief: What You Can Do To Help."