Secondhand Serenade and Hawthorne Heights played a stripped-down acoustic set on February 22 at the Marquee and brought out every emo in Phoenix.
Every act of the evening, which included Ronnie Winter and Kenny Holland, used the acoustic rule to different effect.
Ronnie Winter sat on a stool and played covers of songs from his band Red Jumpsuit Apparatus and others that he loves. He looked comfortable, having flown in for the show, as he had for every stop on the tour, according to Chris Popadak, the drummer for Hawthorne Heights.
Ronnie also announced that he would be releasing his own CD later this year, which will be his first in 13 years.
After Ronnie Winter came Kenny Holland, who seemed excited to be playing his hometown. He performed with guitarist Macy Santa Maria, who also plays in local Phoenix band Alex Mullins and the Royal. Kenny played keyboard while his friend Sam played cajon, and together the trio made a Sam Smith-esque pop sound that the crowd sang along to in spots. Kenny performed a mixture of covers and originals, including merging “Mr. Brightside” into his own “So What.”
Hawthorne Heights produced an entirely different sound. With two acoustic guitars, an electric bass, and a drum kit, they put forth a complete sound that, while different from their earlier works, still managed to sound incredible. Their songwriting lost an element without the electric guitar and screaming, but they gained intimacy and a rawer sound. JT, Mark and Matt all sat on stools near the edge of the stage, while Chris played further back, so as not to drown out the rest. The stage felt empty without decoration, but this allowed the audience to focus on the musicians and their quirks while playing. Every time Mark mouthed the words along with JT, or Matt tossed his head, everyone could see. It made the audience feel more relaxed and comfortable, and there were plenty of smiles and swaying.
The audience was extremely respectful of the artists, staying dead silent for their sets unless it was to sing along or cheer. At several points, the venue was filled with singing as everybody knew the words to a song or had gotten the hang of a chorus. Hawthorne Heights would talk to the crowd and seemed completely at ease.
Secondhand Serenade was the last act of the evening. Red curtains came down to cut the stage in half, and a small banner of the Secondhand Serenade initials went up behind a nightstand with two beers and two water bottles on it. John Vesely was the only one on stage, and he sat on a bar stool that he had brought from home and played song after song. At one point he invited his fiancée, Veronica, up on stage with him. They will be releasing an EP together later this year, titled “Rebel Roads.” The proximity, the single guitar, and John’s confident and happy demeanor all combined into a surprisingly cheerful attitude for a purportedly emo show. It seemed romantic in its closeness.
All in all, the evening was defined by that very feeling of closeness. The crowd was polite and quiet, the artists welcomed warmly. These days it can sometimes feel as though emo has been swept under the rug, as far as genres go. This night proved that emo is still moving along, underground and more quietly. The acoustic route was a wise one – emo has always been about connecting with the listener on a level that is not addressed often in pop songs, and confronting issues that do not get talked about at polite parties. In this, a quieter and barer sound gets rid of all pretense and allows the musician to communicate even more personally. Hawthorne Heights and Secondhand Serenade understand that on an intrinsic level, and they keep creating music that does exactly that: get personal.