Nineteen months ago Shannon Smith and I met a chrome-plated unknown with brooding presence and thunderous pipes just outside Greensboro's Natty Greene’s. Almost begrudgingly, the dude Shannon knew from the local Honda dealership confessed he was about to audition for American Idol. We thought little of it at the time; having covered plenty of Idol stops before, we’d interviewed scores of delusional losers with musical aspirations. Something about this guy was different though, his brooding looks oozed confidence and unlike the glittered army of Idol aspirants we’d encountered in the past - he didn’t seem the least bit insane. So, when that same lowly auto clerk returned to his adopted hometown a swaggering rock star with a red hot album, it was only right Shannon and I team up for one more go at the Chris Daughtry phenomenon.
Or so we thought. Our enthusiasm waned a little early on as we hung out just by the slowly-rising stage and profiled roadies. There seemed to be hundreds. Burly bouncer types, vampire look-a-likes, a few longshoremen - all working furiously to erect the spotlight Daughtry would dominate nine hours later. Nodding at a lumberjack, I casually covered my camera’s logo as Shannon and I sauntered through an area we’d been told to keep out of. Fat chance. With a cadre of competitors jockeying for spots and my own affiliate's self-professed experts demanding something exclusive, we were on a mission - lack of press pass be damned. Not that we hoped to find Chris himself. Having told us earlier he’d be spending the day with his family instead of us media jackals, Shannon and I were forced to troll for lesser bait. After a hearty debate on sideburns and class structure, we deciphered which unwashed young man was in charge. Minutes later, we huddled outside a gleaming back tour bus with a pensive Gen-X’er in a pimp hat and drumsticks in his back-pocket. Exclusive scored.
The rest of the day stretched into a blur. Parked by the train trestle overlooking the stage, we chopped out footage in an air conditioned live truck as the sun beat down on Hamburger Square. By mid afternoon the roadies were almost through fiddling with their hanging stacks of speakers, their endless banks of colored lights and umpteen formats of pricey film cameras. Earlier in the week, word had filtered out that Chris’ hometown stop would be filmed for next video (‘Home‘, of course). Perched there above the fray with a lens or two of my own, I hoped Greensboro’s free concert wouldn't become Greensboro’s free film shoot. A wall of photog-asses is no fun to look at - even if you didn't shell out jack for a front row look at the vocalist of the moment. Already, people poured into the square, happy to claim a spot by the stage hours before the first guitar would scream or crunch. Young women in adhesive t-shirts with ’Daughtry’ emblazoned on them, Soccer Mom’s slathering sun-screen on their youngest, grown men with box-top signs and disturbingly high waistlines. For not the first or last time that day, I thanked God I wasn’t the object of their adulation. Though I gotta figure the paycheck ain’t half bad.
An hour and a half before the opening act was set to kick off their set list, the throng of concertgoers had eclipsed every blade of grass and square of sidewalk. Between live shots, I panned my lens over the crowd, taking in all the parents, pre-teens and pickpockets. Knowing I’d soon have to wade right through that mob to get to my pre-ordained camera position, I took a long pull from a three dollar bottle of water and took out my cell phone. A full block away the sun-baked silhouette in my viewfinder reached down and yanked something off his hip. Joe McCloskey had been on the roof of McCoul’s all afternoon, it was blazing hot and his earpiece batteries were dying - but he still humored me with a few gestures in my lens’s direction. Days earlier, we’d first scaled the three story building in search of a vantage spot for our Julie Luck to field anchor from. Initially I was bummed that I wouldn’t be the one manning the roof cam, but as I watched Joe’s profile sweat in black and white, my shady stage-right perch didn’t seem so bad.
Two hours later, all sunlight was gone. An estimated twenty-two thousand hopped-up fans stood spangled t-shirt to Nascar coverall, well-healed suburbanites mingling with the denizens of rundown mobile home courts. Daughtry the unifier, I thought as I stretched my tripod to its full height. Thirty minutes earlier I’d abandoned the safety and Cheetos of my live truck nest to forge a path into the very heart of that pulsating pack. Now wedged into a space by the soundboard, I suffered the slings and arrows of the half-inebriated fans around me. TV cameras will do that: spark showers of affection from total strangers while causing others to curse your very shadow. But since Athenaeum was ripping through their set at full volume I couldn’t tell if the good people behind me were wishing me well or telling me to get the hell out of their way. I just nodded and smiled, but I gotta admit I winced a little when Athenaeum’s guitarist dropped an F-bomb laden message to President Bush in front of all those kids. Political rants from musicians are shrill enough when delivered by chubby country singers; they’re extra stupid when shouted out over the jangly chords of last decade’s second place pop. Wrong room, pal.
Of course all thoughts of politics evaporated the moment what’s their name left the stage. The folks crammed onto South Elm street hadn’t turned out to cheer blue or red states. They’d come to throw the goat, to bathe in the mainstream glow of what many dismiss as pre-fab middle of the road corporate rock. I wish I were that cool. Instead I’m a forty year old father of two who probably would have liked Daughtry’s populist fare even if Shannon and I hadn’t stumbled across him on the eve of his meteoric rise. As the bakld one’s roadies scrambled to finish their last minute tweaks, local deejay Jack Murphy removed any remnant of hipness with his overcooked Top Forty shtick. Finally he relinquished the microphone to my colleague Julie Luck, who - though hard to hear - didn’t sound like she was providing color commentary at a celebrity tractor pull. When she introduced the video I’d put together tracking Daughtry’s transformation, I pulled back from the viewfinder and watched about eight thousand people react en masse at all the right moments. Heady stuff for the sequestered editor. I’d hoped Chris and the fellas would storm the stage as the video’s soundtrack thundered to a close, but no such luck. Five more minute passed before the spotlights swirled center-stage.
The Chris Daughtry that took the south Elm street stage was an electrified version of the quiet dude I've met. How couldn’t he be? Once a working class schlub with funky sideburns and a struggling band, he was now a certified global sensation with a double-platinum album under his studded belt. Prowling the stage in a skull cap and laser straight stubble, he flashed a grin to friends and families while portly grandmothers in Daughtry t-shirts squirmed and swooned. From my sniper’s nest by the soundboard, I stood on my tiptoes under the camera reached up to control the focus. Around me, restrained bedlam ensued as mechanics, accountants and derelicts pumped their fists and bit their lower lips. Rock and roll ain’t pretty, man and after the requisite first two songs were captured on my optical disc, I broke down my gear and prepared to fight the mob all the way back to the live truck. I could still see Shannon up on the ridge, backlit the soft-box I’d set up earlier, bobbing her head to the beat when not checking her watch. The footage I’d just recorded was due to air in twenty minutes and thousands of euphoric fans were between me and my deadline. Great.
Still, I couldn’t help but stand there and soak up the view sans camera. Colored lights swirled over the shoulder to shoulder as a boom camera swooped and dove, eliciting shrieks of orgasm wherever it happened to glance. On stage, Chris paced and bellowed, working his band of tattooed twenty-somethings into a pop metal frenzy. He even peppered his lyrics with impromptu whoops and mid-ditty patter, easily displaying ten times the charisma he managed to eek out during the half dozen interviews we’d conducted during last year’s Idol odyssey. Watching him wring the songs (and the female-heavy crowd) of every last drop of over-emotive rock god possibility, I realized why. The dude was finally free of Idol’s soul-crushing saccharine grip. His debut album may not exactly be cutting edge, instead it offers the familiar trappings of fully-belted barnburners power ballads, and one finely textured rock-star wail. 'Never Mind the Bollocks’ it ain’t - but who cares? For now, Daughtry’s voice and music holds many in the mainstream rock audience enraptured for now. I once thought his reign of the charts would be typically short lived, but after watching him render his hometown crowd to camera-friendly cinders, I’m beginning to think he’s just getting started. Party on, Chris...