Rarely does such a visible change to a band’s lineup feel this refreshingly status-quo. Flyleaf is still Flyleaf, and that’s a good thing.
The alternative/kinda-Christian-rock band’s show in San Antonio on Saturday night was scheduled to take place at nightclub 210 Kapone’s, but a minor electrical fire on Friday night forced the four-artist bill to a fenced-off, adjacent outdoor lot, with railroad tracks running less than 90 feet to the right of the stage. Along with about 10 real trains that lurched past the performance – and drew some sarcastic cheers – fans of the headliners saw firsthand that a change in vocalists hasn’t derailed the Flyleaf train in the least.
With former Vedera lead singer Kristen May in front of Flyleaf after replacing Lacey Sturm in October 2012, the Texas-rooted band’s performance Saturday suggested that it just keeps chugging along. In fact, to a large degree, not much is different.
Close to a decade after the release of Flyleaf’s debut album, guitarists Sameer Bhattacharya and Jared Hartmann, bassist Pat Seals and drummer James Culpepper are still conjuring a darkly powerful heavy-rock racket. The face and the voice in front of them are all that’s changed. And on new record Between the Stars, the band’s first full-length with May, she proves a worthy successor. May steps into her role with seamlessness and maintains the sense of melody and dynamic touch that have always set Flyleaf apart from most in the hard-rock game.
Seals said before Saturday’s show that the transition from Sturm to May was a smooth one.
“I think we were just in dire need of a singer. We wanted to take New Horizons out and continue to play,” Seals said, referring to the band’s final album with Sturm. “And her audition just came at the exact right time. So the transition felt very serendipitous – it felt like it was supposed to happen. And it’s easy to talk about Kristen, too, because she’s so great. It’s not a challenge at all. In fact, it’s something I look forward to. I can say, ‘Our singer really brings it.’”
May’s voice does exactly for Flyleaf what Sturm’s always did: Add an edgy, needed sweetening to a distorted guitar attack that, in the hands of too many bands in Flyleaf’s genre, ends up turning into a mindless display of testosterone-fueled abrasiveness.
Though she deals in a similar vocal range, May isn’t exactly a Sturm clone; her voice is more polished and controlled. Any notion that May might be uncomfortable performing songs predating her arrival in Flyleaf was immediately dispelled when the band kicked off its set with two powerful singles from the Sturm era: “Fully Alive,” from the group’s self-titled debut, and “Again” from 2009’s Memento Mori. The voice is different; the anthemic impact is the same.
Other old standouts, such as “Cassie” and encore “I’m So Sick,” showed how May can put her own stamp on tunes she didn’t record. Sometimes, that can come by omission. For example, she declined use of Sturm’s aggressive, screamo styling on the word “BREAK” that leads into the chorus of “I’m So Sick.” It was the band’s first single off its debut album and remains one of its best-known songs – but hey, new sheriff. Fresh single “Set Me on Fire,” “Magnetic” and a slow-building “Head Underwater” offered strong live representations of Between the Stars.
“When we did our first tour with Kristen last year, with Drowning Pool, I did notice the crowd would just be so quiet during the song – just really tuned in, seeing what Kristen was doing, what she was about, listening,” Seals said Saturday. “But the applause would always come, so it’s a relief.”
As a visual performer, May gives the soaring spirituality of Flyleaf’s music the presence it deserves. She’ll tilt her head to the sky and throw her left arm out to her side, letting her soul out. When she goes offstage – which happened a fair amount during Saturday’s show – she’ll be in the crowd or atop the barricade in front of them. If it isn’t May commanding attention, it’s Bhattacharya or Seals doing it. In particular, Seals is liable to hop on and jump off any speaker, or otherwise upright structure, in his path.
Flyleaf played for just an hour, a fairly short set given that the band has four full albums and change worth of material. But the set’s mix of old and new songs left the few hundred fans on hand seemingly satisfied, and left no doubt that Flyleaf’s focused rock power still ranks it among the best bands of its ilk.
Georgia-born Lullwater, a recent addition to the tour, appetized the crowd with a driving alternative set with more than a little grunge inflection, featuring the gravelly voice of rhythm guitarist John Strickland. Before that, longtime Flyleaf friend Ryan White, who later joined the headliners on set closer “So I Thought,” provided a changeup to the bill. White had the stage to himself, his guitar and his emotionally resonant voice for half an hour of acoustic balladry. Black Rose Garden, a local by-the-numbers mainstream hard rock band, opened the show.
Flyleaf — San Antonio outdoor show, 10/4/14
Photos by Nicole Berlin