When the final notes of “(*Fin)” rang out at the end of Anberlin’s last show in 2014, the band’s devout fanbase expected they would never hear that transcendent musical chemistry again. Bands come and go every day, especially in an era where it is harder than ever to play rock and roll professionally. But the musical community seemed to feel this loss particularly keenly, knowing that the once-in-a-lifetime tones effortlessly created by Anberlin could never be replaced.
“We’ll live forever,” Stephen Christian belted over the outro chords of “(*Fin).”
2019 has proved those words were a kind of prophecy, sung from the band’s deathbed.
When a reunion show happened in Florida last December, fans instantly made it clear: they wanted more. Anberlin has delivered this summer with a full North American tour. I threw my camera gear in my car and drove to Dallas for the tour’s first night– a particularly nostalgic experience for me, as I grew up going to Anberlin shows in Dallas a decade ago.
We live in an era when nostalgia is one of the most marketable commodities. While the current industry environment can be forbidding to newer acts trying to claim their own legacy, bands who have not charted on the radio since the 90s can make a very tidy living playing moderately sized venues full of listeners reliving their best memories. And there is absolutely value to the nostalgia tour, even though it is usually held to different musical standards of excellence.
The question could easily be asked about Anberlin’s run across America: what category does it fall under? It’s been half a decade since Anberlin’s farewell, and they’ve made it clear that at this time they have no firm plans for music to come. This means it’s not your standard, album-promo-cycle tour. But within the first moments of the gritty intro to “Godspeed,” drifting over an ecstatic House of Blues crowd, it was clear that this is not just a nostalgia tour either. Anberlin’s musical mastery is still very much alive– as is the passion of their fans.
The band rolled through three fan favorites to open the set: “Godspeed,” “Never Take Friendship Personal,” and “Paperthin Hymn.” The energy was breathtaking, the band on stage captivating, always in motion. Each of the riff-heavy songs was carried by Joseph Milligan and Christian McAlhaney, offering the searing guitar tones that are Anberlin’s signature.
Free from the constraints of any guideline aside from the songs everyone in the room universally wanted to sing, there was the sense that Anberlin found a lot of joy in choosing the evening’s setlist. The list skewed Cities-centric, a wise choice in a room full of people who likely have that album intertwined with their own coming of age. With “Hello Alone,” “Adelaide,” and “Dismantle. Repair,” the room was seemingly transported into the emotional experience of loving and losing and becoming. Stephen Christian’s ethereal voice never had to carry a single note alone, only breaking away from the roaring melody of the crowd for an occasional seemingly impossible ascent, such as when he held a note in “Unwinding Cable Car” perfectly on pitch for what felt like minutes. The participatory element was taken to the next level when the band brought a fan on stage to sing most of “Inevitable.”
There was a strong showing from other moments in the discography too. Upbeat “A Day Late” and melancholic “Time and Confusion” gave further representation to Never Take Friendship Personal. Even New Surrender, an album often overshadowed by its one massive radio single (“Feel Good Drag”) had a strong showing with “Disappear” and “The Resistance.” In addition to “Impossible,” “Down” came from Dark is the Way, Light is a Place and offered an acoustic moment that led to heartfelt encouragement from Stephen Christian to fight for positive change in a world so needy of our voices and our time freely given.
As the band worked in more songs from their last two albums, Vital and Lowborn, towards the end of the set, there was almost a desperation in the voices of fans still singing along strong– as if yet again, they didn’t want it all to end. As if they could be sweating and singing in that one moment for the rest of time. “Feel Good Drag” closed off the main set, prompting a rowdy rock show moment of flying hair and microphones extended off stage and into the crowd to amplify their already deafening roar. Appropriately, Anberlin ended the night with “(Fin*),” the great magnum opus about death, God, addiction, and the way we all stumble blindly towards the light.
Maybe the best question that could be asked of Anberlin right now is simply how. How does a band fully let go of their career, do zero promotion for nearly five years, and come back to sell out venues across the country? How does a band overcome the digital overcrowd, calling fans who were once Warped Tour kids and are now parents and professionals back into the gritty clubs to sing along? If Anberlin’s immortal, how exactly did they achieve that?
The question of how to make immortal art is an obvious one that has been asked since the dawn of creativity itself. After watching Anberlin light a room of souls on fire in Dallas, I would hazard my guess at an answer: if you want to be immortal as a band, sings immortal songs. Sing about the universal human experiences of suffering, love, loss, joy, the process of digging meaning out of the wreckage we all find ourselves in. Connection is immortal. Hope is immortal. And with those eternal things central to everything Anberlin is, I think they really might live forever.
All photos by Chad Fenner and Mary Nikkel. See the full gallery here.
If you’re feeling as nostalgic as we are, revisit my interview from Anberlin’s 2014 farewell tour at the link below.