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Aaron Lewis of Staind gives soulful acoustic performance

Bob Costa | Monday, September 10, 2007

Aaron Lewis, the lead singer of the popular alternative metal group Staind, stopped by the Morris Performing Arts Center in downtown South Bend on Friday evening for a poignant, if simple, solo acoustic performance.

Lewis, 35, has been the lead vocalist and guitarist for the Massachusetts-based Staind since 1995. Staind’s breakthrough 2001 album “Break the Cycle” spawned the hit singles “It’s Been Awhile,” “Outside,” “Epiphany” and “Fade.” The band’s subsequent releases – “14 Shades of Grey” and “Chapter V” – both hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts.

Lewis’ current tour, “Have Guitar, Will Travel,” with an emphasis on acoustic music and personal connection between audience and performer, is a much quieter affair than Staind’s usually raucous live gigs in rock clubs and arenas.

He walked alone onto the Morris Center’s expansive stage clad in simple black tee, rumpled blue jeans and a black baseball cap pulled down low over his furrowed brow. The lights were minimal, with only a spotlight shining on center-stage. The set’s black background seemed more like PBS’s “Charlie Rose” than a rock concert.

With just a stool, an acoustic guitar and his music, Lewis brought a welcome sense of emotional authenticity to his stripped-down concert, evoking such grunge-rock favorites as Pearl Jam and Nirvana on the MTV television series “Unplugged.” In the recent past, Lewis and Staind also appeared on the legendary program.

Lewis began the show with a somewhat rocky take on “Please,” a track off 2005’s “Chapter V” album. While he may be nowhere near a guitar maestro, Lewis’ emotive style and deeply resonant voice are the welcome hallmarks of his music.

Much like folk musicians, Lewis focuses on telling a story or sharing a feeling in his songs, stretching his imperfect voice between soulfully earnest and deeply troubled. Lewis’ raw emotions easily held the audience’s rapt attention more than once during the show, especially on the recently penned “Angel” and “Everything Changes.”

Other highlights of the performance included another new song called “Anywhere But Here,” which Lewis amusingly noted was written in a parking lot in Sioux Falls, S.D. Lewis also gave fans a moving take on Staind’s single “Home” from the album 1999 “Dysfunction,” singing with an almost unbridled despair.

However, even though many of Lewis’ songs seem depressed or nearly tragic, he is an artist who knows how to let an audience enjoy themselves.

Between deeply personal acoustic takes on different tracks, Lewis threw in fun songs like “Bong Hits for Breakfast,” a blues-based ode to cannabis that he wrote as a teenager. Toward the end of his set, Lewis also played a medley of classic rock covers, from Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” and even Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection” (which is about as far from metal as one can get).

Although Staind has a public perception as a hard-rock and metal band, Lewis let his softer side show during the Morris Center concert, chatting casually between songs about dropping his daughter off on her first day of school.

After a brief encore, Lewis returned to his stool to strum out his hit songs “Outside” and “It’s Been Awhile,” inviting the audience to sing along.

In a rock ‘n’ roll world where being super-skinny, super-hip and super-ironic is the “in” thing, Lewis plods on with his cross-country acoustic tour. He plays solid and straightforward meat-and-potatoes rock songs to the delight of fans who like their musicians singing about love, loss and hope instead of “girls from the club” or something being “bootylicious.”

At the Morris on Friday night, the Vermont-born Lewis seemed to feel right at home in the Midwest. Maybe John Mellencamp doesn’t need to be the only popular rocker in Indiana anymore.