By Allyson Bills
Taylor Swift who? That was the question at Tuesday night’s Rocky Votolato show at The Rebel Lounge in Phoenix. I forgot about that show existed until Votolato joked to the crowd, “What are you doing here, and not at the Taylor Swift show?" Votolato, a singer-songwriter from Seattle, is currently touring the United States in support of his latest album, Hospital Handshakes. According to the Facebook event for this show, it was originally advertised as Rocky Votolato playing with a full band, something that rarely happens in his shows.
However, Votolato took the stage shortly after 10 p.m. with just himself, guitar and harmonica to an awkwardly silent crowd who could have possibly expected a full band as well, or were thinking about getting another beer. None of the above mattered within the first few notes of “Little Spring” from Television of Saints. Votolato doesn’t need a backing band. The world is his living room, and we are just visiting. It was ironic that he began the show with a song from Television of Saints, the 2012 crowd-funded album, which after released he lost his passion for music. As a result, he took a break from music for a couple of years.
The songs from Hospital Handshakes that were full-band songs, “The Hereafter,” “White-Knuckles,” and "Boxcutter” provided to be just as powerful acoustically. Especially his latest album’s title track, “Hospital Handshakes,” a song that he is playing in military hospitals on this tour, which was darker acoustically with his a capella vocals that captured the mood of the song perfectly. Votolato dedicated it to the people out there who were attempting to overcome PTSD and depression. See H&N’s interview with Rocky pertaining to his involvement with Zero Platoon.
Votolato also treated the crowd to a slew of songs from his most well-known album, Suicide Medicine. This is my favorite album of Votolato’s, and the sentiment was equally shared with the crowd because those songs (from this album) incited the show’s largest reaction. My wish came true came because I really wanted to hear the “Every Red Cent,” and Votolato played this song in his set. He stated that this song was a request from a fan in The Rebel Lounge’s parking lot. The chorus was the most powerful of all the songs that night. You could feel the energy between Votolato and the crowd; it was electrifying. He also played the crowd favorites, which was obvious because of all the sing-a-longs, “Alabaster,” “The Light and the Sound” and “Montana” with his harmonica. The audience received a special surprise when one of Votolato’s openers on the tour, Dave Hause, came onstage to help with this album’s title track, “Suicide Medicine.” Votolato dedicated this song to Hause who helped him through a incident with his temper on this tour so far.
The surprises didn’t stop there. Votolato admitted to the audience, saying that “I feel like going off the map” with his setlist. In “Tinfoil Hat” from Makers, Votolato earnestly sings the crowd, using his trademark harmonica, that “Life keeps on changing // Tell it to stay still it won’t listen,” which they responded with a rousing chorus. This chorus was the theme of the night for sure. The eclectic setlist also included other crowd favorites: “Portland” and “White Daisy Passing” from Makers, which the latter created some quiet, but necessary moments in the chorus. It was magical, just like in the lyrics of “White Daisy Passing”, “There’s a secret magic password." We were all part of his not-so-secret show. Also, the songs of "Red River" and "Lucky Denver Coin” from True Devotion also went down and were equally as compelling.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was when Votolato played “The Wrong Side of Reno” from The Brag and Cuss, which he dedicated to his “toughest buddy in Reno.” So much so that one guy in the audience said to Rocky, “You made my whole night.” The surprise continued through to the encore, “Goldfield” from Makers, which appeared that he wasn’t initially going to play an encore. It was a fitting song to end the show with the lyrics of, “Gone this time // I’m really leaving.” You know the show officially ended after “Goldfield.”
Ever the humble guy that Votolato is, he thanked his sound guy Grimm, this show’s promoter and The Rebel Lounge’s owner Stephen Chilton, and the crowd for “being part of the family.” Votolato taught the crowd that expecting the unexpected can reap the biggest rewards. The crowd didn’t want the party to end, and neither did I. Forget about the Taylor Swift show that was going on to the west in Glendale, the real party was The Rebel Lounge.