Live often explored how we are tied to the earth: obsessed with the worldly things that hold us back from reaching higher levels of consciousness. The lead singer and unmistakable voice of Live, Kowalczyk acted as a sort of spirit guide in a lot of ways. He’d go out, have supposedly transcendent experiences, then come back and write about them. Many of the group’s songs contained some kind of message or lesson.
Like Timothy Leary or Carlos Castaneda before him, Kowalczyk tried to interpret his own experiences with the unknown in a way that others could learn from. It wasn’t just the lyrics he wrote, but also the slight touches of mystery and foreboding in the songs that leant them such a beautifully psychedelic quality. Listening to Live for all of those years, the line between the band’s music and Kowalczyk’s identity became very blurred. As a vocalist, songwriter, and seeker of truth, he seemed to be the embodiment of what Live stood for in every way.
That all started to change after they broke up. Between the lawsuits from old band mates and his subsequent Christian rock success, thinking about who the modern-day Kowalczyk might have become tended to leave a nasty taste in the mouth. That taste grew all the more bitter after seeing him play the Belly Up last Tuesday night.
Seconds into the show’s opener, “All Over You,” Kowalczyk stepped back from the mic to let the audience do the singing. When he realized nobody was singing along (It was only the first song!) he shot a disappointed look and reluctantly stepped back up to the mic to resume vocal duties. This happened numerous times throughout the night, getting increasingly awkward each time, and his relationship with the audience began to grow tense. Clearly he had hoped to sing as little as possible, but the crowd wasn’t playing ball.
When he spoke to the audience between songs, it was hard to tell if his affected mannerisms were intended to poke fun at tough-guy stereotypes or if he actually perceived himself as some kind of rock and roll badass. Either way, Kowalczyk’s cocky swagger was confusing, uncomfortable, and off-putting. This wasn’t the inquisitive, spiritually inquisitive figure evoked by all those classic Live albums — this was a guy who seemed hungry for adoration and confused (and slightly angry) that he wasn’t getting it.
Kowalczyk’s set consisted of mostly Live material with some of his newer praise-the-Lord material sprinkled throughout. Some singers might get away with a tour centered around solo versions of their former band’s hits, but Live’s material felt painfully incomplete without its usual instrumentation. Despite Kowalczyk’s efforts to the contrary, his skeletal renditions of tracks like “Pillar of Davidson” and “The Distance” simply couldn’t stand on their own. Adding to the evening’s confusion, the sultry vocals that he had used so tastefully on Live’s albums were cranked to 11 during his performance — so much so that, at times, he sounded like he was making fun of his own singing style.
Despite Kowalczyk’s encore — which included a flaccid rendition of “Lightning Crashes” — failing to leave an impression, I left the Belly Up with my love for Live’s music still somehow intact. But I also left with full certainty that the man I had just listened to for over an hour would never make music I care about again.