Skillet has a list of accolades the size of an arena: Grammy nominations, multiple platinum and gold records, countless #1 singles. A band with a legacy that big– and an anthemic, cinematic rock discography to match– is in high demand for mega tours. Skillet is a frequent headliner for Winter Jam, and they’ve sold out shows on four continents.
I’ve seen Skillet upwards of 25 times. Over the past 5 years, it has almost always been in arenas, theaters, festival stages, and amphitheaters. That made it instantly intriguing to me when I saw that their Victorious War co-headlining tour with Sevendust would be kicking off at a 1,600 capacity club in Memphis.
The smaller setting required a stripped down, classic rock and roll set approach. It was an ethos every band on the bill embraced whole-heartedly. It was a hometown show for Devour the Day, who offered plenty of southern rock attitude as they warmed up the crowd with tracks like “The Bottom,” “Faithless,” and “Good Man.”
Pop Evil took the stage next, their performance style referencing the metal greats with guitar-lick heavy renditions of “Be Legendary,” “Waking Lions,” and “Trenches.” By this time the crowd was enthusiastically engaged, lifting their voices (and their cell phones during an emotional rendition of “Torn to Pieces”).
Sevendust has mastered the no-frills rock performance to a level I’ve rarely seen before. Kicking off with “Dirty,” lead single from recent album All I See is War, it was instantly evident that this is a band who has mastered their craft. Lajon Witherspoon delivered vocals like a battering ram, puncturing through the enthusiastic applause from the room. Their set was unusually centered on older hits like “Denial,” “Enemy,” “Angel’s Son,” and “Waffle,” which brought all the best of 2000s-era rock to life in the room.
Skillet’s John Cooper would say later that Sevendust is one of those bands that other bands stop what they’re doing to watch– and it was clear why. With a tight cohesion between the band members that is only achieved by veterans of the stage, they powered through their set without ever losing momentum or letting the crowd’s attention wander.
The excellence of all the bands that came before set the stage perfectly for Skillet. There was a unique energy to the performance from the outset, due both to the smaller venue and to the fact that Skillet was just a week out from releasing Victorious— and they were debuting songs from it in the city where Skillet was first formed in 1996.
Skillet kicked off the performance with smash hit from their last album, “Feel Invincible.” They took it back another album with “Not Gonna Die” before introducing the first of the new songs with “You Ain’t Ready,” for which John Cooper pulled out the cryo guns that have become a recent signature.
The stage was smaller and lower to the ground than the kind of spaces I usually see them play, but they owned it just the same– Korey Cooper owning stage left on “Whispers in the Dark” while Seth Morrison shredded the solo and an added outro on stage right. Jen Ledger was back and forth between drums and standing front and center for her parts on songs like “Hero,” showing off vocals that only seem to have gotten stronger since she’s started pulling double duty with her solo side project.
So many moments in Skillet’s performance took me back to seeing them in clubs over a decade ago. It helps that new tracks from Victorious, songs like “Save Me” and “Victorious,” carry some of that same energy of Comatose and Collide era Skillet. The audience seemed to already know every word to even the new songs. Skillet commanded a connection to their fans that was visceral and personal. Older hits like “Monster” and encore “Rebirthing” brought the guitars to the fore, crescendoing in an outro that served as a reminder of what rock and roll should be.
The new songs from Victorious held up just as well in this setting as the older classics, leaving the room satisfied by a set that felt energetic and cohesive. Skillet’s set on the Victorious War tour was a statement to me, to the whole world: Skillet doesn’t need an arena to put on a good show. All they need is the passion and the fans that have carried them from day one in Memphis to millions of records sold two decades later.
Find all dates of the Victorious War tour, plus the upcoming Victorious Sky tour with Alter Bridge, at skillet.com/tour. See more photos from the evening: