Just a mere two and a half years ago, Avril Lavigne broke onto the pop landscape with the hit single "Complicated". Her melodious harmonies and down to earth manner was the anti-Britney. The memorable and melodic songs from her debut record, "Let Go", caught the world by storm and helped her debut go on to sell over ten million copies worldwide. In May 2004, she released the follow up, "Under My Skin". Unlike most other pop acts from the last half decade, who try to cash in on their new found fame by rehashing sights and sounds over and over again, Avril took important steps forward during the recording of her second album. The catchy hooks are still there, but another layer to her soul was peeled off. Where Britney Spears merely has been revising songs from her debut album for half a decade, Avril has revealed more development in half the time or albums. Part of this is due to Lavigne taking the reigns of her career and steering it forward. Instead of using the producing team of the Matrix once again, she used multiple producers on her new album granting her further exploration of her musical growth. No one better helped her spread her wings than producer Butch Walker. Not only did he produce four of the songs on her sophomore album, but she invited him on tour to be her opener. And what a revelation he is.
Butch Walker has been paying his dues for close to fifteen years and he may finally be reaping the rewards of his hard work. Starting out as simply the guitar player in an early 90's hair band, Southgang, Butch expanded his horizons in his next group Marvelous 3 where he took over the writing and producing responsibilities. After they disbanded, two solo CDs followed and a slew of producing gigs. In 2004 alone, besides Avril Lavigne, Butch has produced albums for The Donna's, Bowling For Soup and American Hi-Fi who are currently Butch's supporting band on the road. What I witnessed during Butch's opening set was nothing short of breathtaking, it was the birth of a star. The word "star" is not something I use lightly: when I refer to Walker as a star I am comparing him to people like Mick Jagger, Bono, Jon Bon Jovi, Madonna, and Bruce Springsteen...someone who elevates everything and everyone in their presence. Butch took to the United Center stage where virtually no one knew who he was, but by the time he took his bows 45 minutes later, everyone was aware they were seeing a star in the making.
He came out ready to rock with "My Way", the lead track off his Arista album, "Left of Self Centered" from 2001. Right from these opening notes he engaged the crowd, won them over and came close to stealing the show from the headliner. Avril Lavigne is only twenty years old- to put that in perspective, it's approximately the same amount of time that Butch Walker has been honing his craft. American Hi-Fi backed Butch with the gusto of a band one would assume has been playing arenas for years, not for the first time. Butch's presence on stage was bigger than any of the skyscrapers in downtown Chicago; from the moment he took the stage he owned it. Walker worked the crowd with tracks off his most recent Epic recording, "Letters". The single that should be a classic "Mixtape", the sweet "#1 Summer Jam", the infectious "Maybe It's Just Me" and the heartrending "Don't Move" were all delivered to the Chicago crowd with vigor. Butch's aptitude to write a captivating chorus puts him in the league of songwriters like Desmond Child and Dianne Warren-not maudlin music but songs so damn good they remind me of the early Beatles songs. Their music, then and forever, warmed our hearts, brought smiles to our faces and will do the same for our children's children. In short, the music is timeless, just like the songs off "Letters". Walker's stage presence never gave up as he insisted on interaction from the crowd as he made sure fists were flying in the air. This is even more remarkable feat as the audience was mostly very young teen girls and their parents. As he ended his set with "Lights Out" he had the entire arena singing along to the chorus, parents and children together. At its conclusion, he told the audience he and American Hi-Fi would be signing autographs inside the arena outside of section 102. I turned to my girlfriend Jen and asked her if we could go over and see if anyone showed up, thinking I'd be able to express some thoughts with the talented man. We walked until we got to section 105, three sections shy of where they were signing. The hallway was clogged with young females crying and screaming with hysterics, "A Hard Day's Night" hysteria. I can't even remember the last time I saw madness of this nature. Either way, it was stunning to see and it was clear that a star, Butch Walker, was clearly born.
Headliner Avril Lavigne's set relied on songs from her first two albums, but unpredictably, she came off as self-assured and secure. A giant curtain was draped over the front of the stage. As the lights dimmed, I was able to view Avril and her band take their positions behind the curtain draped over the stage. The opening riff from "He Wasn't" brought screams of adulation from the 12,000 plus young girls in attendance. Most surprisingly, to me, was who was playing the opening guitar riff. Unseen by the crowd, but because of my vantage point from the side of the stage, I could see this riff was being performed by Avril, alone on her Fender Telecaster. "My Happy Ending" quickly followed and was the first of many hit singles in an evening that saw every young girl singing along to virtually every song performed, album tracks included. "Take Me Away" saw Avril discard the guitar for the time being as she carefully paced her show switching between new and older numbers before the band jolted into the first insane anthem of the evening, "Sk8er Boi". The melodic tune brought the three-quarter filled arena to a level of lunacy Avril clearly got off on, as the crowd shrieked for more from the girl they look to when their heart is broken or when they feel like their parents can't relate to them. What surprised me most about Avril's set were the pacing and the grasp she had of the arena. Granted, you could tell she is still learning the required steps to work an arena crowd, but she held her own when most other acts her age are playing to coffee houses. I beheld this young Canadian girl who knew how to connect with each and everyone in the audience, no easy feat. This is a far cry from the shy and ditzy girl who could not even pronounce David Bowie's name correctly two years ago. While she has not quite graduated from bubblegum icon status, she has matured greatly and is taking her career seriously.
Midway through the set, a trio of songs from her debut worked wonderfully with the crowd, the mid-tempo "Anything But Ordinary", "Naked" and the arena-arms in the air sing-a-long "I'm With You" which showcased her vocal talent, which was striking. One of the more stirring moments was when she played piano on "Together". During this song, a chandelier lowered from the lights, showcasing a nice touch of theatrics but not the type which overrun a show, like everything on Britney Spears most recent tour where style took precedence over substance. As the band left the stage, Avril made her way to a chair on the left side of the stage where she played "Tomorrow", alone and acoustic. The song is simplistic in its lyrics as it speaks to trust in a relationship, but the undemanding lyrics were elevated by her presence and delivery. Eighteen months ago when she made her maiden trek on the concert circuit, she would not have been able to pull this off. As she sat on the chair, dressed in black with her converse gym shoes, it struck me that this young woman is more than just a well marketed sensation who got lucky, but a young lady who is quite talented. Lavigne is slowly honing her talent rather than going for the quick buck. The third single from "Under My Skin, "Nobody's Home" was performed by Avril unaccompanied for the first two-thirds of the song before her band joined her back on stage. Once again, instead of bubble gum pop like many of her counterparts, "Nobody's Home" cuts to the core of teen alienation, the tale is yet another step in the right direction for her growth as an artist. "Mobile" and "Don't Tell Me" helped engage the audience with more girl power than the Spice Girls and Britney combined. This is not a show, but a concert, where the foremost rule of the evening, according to opening act Butch Walker, was "it's better to play than to push 'play'". This is why I admire Lavigne; she is willing to perform with a band for the crowd instead of simply call the performance in. It's important for her young fans to see that more goes into music other than make up, cleavage, low cut jeans and adept videos. Her band may still be in their infancy as live performers, but they are budding with every performance. Say what you want about Avril Lavigne, but she is a performer, not a poser.
For the evening's first encore, Lavigne found herself behind the drum kit pounding away to Blur's 90's hit "Song 2". Butch Walker sang lead vocals and worked the crowd while Avril showed her chops on the drums, which were impressive, once again showcasing that her talent lies within musicianship rather than belly dancing. The encore necessity "Complicated" (a song Lavigne admits to not wanting to play) brought the evening full circle as this was clearly the colossal hit everyone wanted to hear. The ensuing sing-a-long was archetypal as every jaw in the arena, whether you were 8 or 48, was flapping along. Before she ended her 90 minute set, the stage lights dimmed and the piano was back at center stage. The solo rendition of "Slipped Away" ended the evening on a quiet but reflective note.
As the young teen women, most dressed like their Avril, left the United Center I could see the giddiness in their faces. They were exhilarated from being eyewitnesses to a concert by an idol they identify with, look up to and someone I admire for empathizing substance over style. Whether or not these young women continue to grow with Avril or simply out grow her we will have to wait and see. But for the here and now, Avril Lavigne is an artist who deserves a fair shake and I for one will be watching her career closely as she continues to make strides and push the envelope forward. As for Butch Walker, his star has risen...and I can only hope that people take notice.
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