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Sounds: A need to slow things down

It’s been exactly three years since Weekender last spoke with Needtobreathe. In that time, the band has opened for Bruce Springsteen, released a top-10 album and toured the country with Taylor Swift.

In other words, Needtobreathe has officially gotten big.

For a group that spent the better part of a decade in small clubs, building an audience one fan at a time, the success is well-deserved. Needtobreathe’s music always seemed to be built for cavernous spaces—from the rumbling boom of Bear Rinehart’s voice to the panoramic sweep of the group’s electric guitars.

A good band never forgets its roots, though. That’s why the guys are doing a little downsizing this fall, hitting the road for a back-to-basics tour that focuses on cozy, sweaty venues instead of bigger rooms.

“With some of these venues, it feels like we played them 20 times before we sold them out,” said Rinehart, who splits the band’s songwriting duties with his brother, Bo. “They’re the kind of places you play when you’re starting out. You get in there and play to 20 people, then 50 people, then 100 people. Eventually, you sell it out and move on.”

As the band’s popularity grew, so did the stage show.

“We added some extra production and started traveling with two tractor–trailers full of stuff,” Bear continued, “but it kinda limits what you can do with the audience and how much they can affect the show. We’re still a club band over in Europe, so when we go over there, we do whatever we want. We just put up our guitar amps and play, and we’re so close that we can hear every comment that people make in that room, which makes it easier to take the temperature of the audience.”

With a new album due out in 2014 and a new drummer onboard, the group wanted to reconnect with fans on a face-to-face level. That meant avoiding venues like the 9:30 Club, which the guys have sold out in recent years. When they drive through Virginia next week, they’ll be playing the Canal Club, a 700-capacity venue in downtown Richmond.

“We want the proximity to be different,” said Bear. “We don’t want to spread out onstage, or have the lighting guy turn the lights off between songs, or have any sort of mystery to our show. I wanna be able to yell something while we’re still playing, to tell the guys we’re gonna go to the next thing.”

Touring has always been the key to Needtobreathe’s popularity. Christian radio supported the band from the very start—Rinehart is a pastor’s son, with a gospel-tinged voice and a knack for writing lyrics that sometimes sound a bit like parables—but the mainstream stations haven’t been much help. Almost everything the guys have accomplished, from the sold-out tours to the 300,000-plus sales of their third album, “The Outsiders,” has been a product of their time on the road.

You can hear the highway’s influence on songs like “Drive All Night,” where Rinehart tries to turn over a new leaf by hopping in his car and hitting the gas. “I need somewhere I can drive all night, out into the darkness,” he sings. The whole “driving” bit is a metaphor, of course  but there’s something about the song’s anthemic pace and careening chorus that rustles up the thrill of the fast lane.

“Rock & roll isn’t an act,” Bear said before the band’s recent show in New York City. “It’s not about getting a program and sticking to it. If we’re gonna play 120 shows in a year, it can’t be the same thing every night.

“We wanted to put ourselves in an uncomfortable position and see what happens. Sometimes, it falls short. But sometimes, something magical happens that wouldn’t have been possible if we stayed in our comfort zone.”

What: Needtobreathe

Where: The Canal Club, 1545 E. Cary St., Richmond

When: Saturday, Oct. 12, at 8:30 p.m.

Cost: $26–$31


Andrew Leahey makes magical things happen in any zone.