A Sunny Day Among the Dark Ones
Several months ago, I saw a TikTok video from Jacob Givens, who posts funny content about music from the 90s—typically indie rock, grunge, alternative, and emo (all the stuff I grew up on).
He’d gained some notoriety and lots of followers, even getting shouted out and reposted by the likes of Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine, and others.
But this video was about the first time he heard a band called Sunny Day Real Estate. This band had an incredible impact on my youth as well, but I never got to see play live. Sadly, I never thought I would since they hadn’t performed in well over a decade.
It was one of the bigger regrets I had in terms of concert experiences. I even had a buddy in college that would mock me when we argued over who loved them more.
“Oh yeah? You like Sunny Day? Well, how many times have you seen them live, Rain??”
I’d hang my head and sigh. “None, Mikey.”
Well, this TikTok told me they were playing again. And the internet quickly confirmed it wasn’t just a one-time festival appearance, but an actual tour!
The closest city to me they were stopping was Asheville, a three-and-a-half-hour drive.
No problem. I had to go.
I immediately texted my sister-in-law and a couple of close friends to see who wanted to join me. Even though I would have gone alone, I needed them there. Not only was I a big fan of this band and finally getting the chance to see them live, my relationship with their music was, not only deeply impacted by but heavily attached to my relationship with and love for my brother.
And he could not join me.
So I knew I would be a wreck. Hearing those songs and not being able to scream the words while standing beside him, arms around necks, was a thought too hard for me to bear.
But I had to go.
Quickly, we got a commitment from a small group of people I trusted to have an enjoyable experience with and also feel protected, emotionally. I knew I could sob the whole show if I had to and still be in a safe space. We booked our hotels and started counting down the weeks.
The day of the show, just as my oldest friend Adam and I were getting ready to load up in the car, my sister-in-law texted me that the show had been postponed. The band (who again, hadn’t played in well over a decade) had doctor’s orders to rest their vocal cords, as the strain from the previous shows had destroyed their throats.
The new date was October 5th and my sister-in-law couldn’t go. Adam and I still could, but the vibe changed a lot more. This trip was already feeling heavy because of the loss of my brother, but now the show was happening on the same week as the first anniversary of his death.
This, ultimately, was why my sister couldn’t go—she booked a solo trip to the place of their honeymoon to weather the storm by herself.
I don’t know what exactly I was hoping for out of the show, but I knew it was going to be heavy for me. And I knew I was glad to have the chance to experience it with a great friend I hadn’t seen in a long while.
The road trip was perfect. Climbing into the mountains of North Carolina on an early October weekday, we watched the leaves change with each passing county.
We laughed. We listened to old songs that reminded us of high school. We talked about our kids, businesses, and dreams.
And when we arrived in Asheville, it was a sunny 70 degrees with perfectly crisp fall air.
We walked to Wicked Weed Brewery, just next door to our venue, The Orange Peel, and sat through both opening bands (one of which we had planned to see!) while eating burgers and drinking beers. My brother’s oldest friend, Jonathan, met us there along with two other folks I hadn’t met before (but one, Leif, was a big fan of the band so I knew we’d get along fine).
Then it was show time.
We walked in and immediately I was transported back into a scene I hadn’t seen in a long time, but one that I had been in many times before throughout my life. And every single one of them was with my brother Beau.
All the people in the room were older now, graying or balding or both. But the smell of stale PBR on wooden floors was the same. The hot rocker chicks with tattoos and decked out in black were the same. The blue lights from the stage spilling onto hundreds of faces were the same. And even though smoking hadn’t been allowed for years in bars now, the smell of fresh cigarette smoke was still, somehow, the same.
Although I had intentionally left that scene and that lifestyle, in a weird way it was like coming home again. I didn’t want to stay there, but it was nice to be back for a bit.
We grabbed some more beers and posted up on the side of the crowd. It’s a little trick I used to use to get closer to the band. The demand is all for the spaces directly in front of the band, but if you don’t mind going to the side, you can actually be much closer to the stage.
It worked out perfectly. They came on and besides the occasional Lurch standing too far in front for their height, we had a direct line of vision for the band. Immediately you could tell why Orange Peel had such a storied history as a music venue. The lighting was incredible. The sound was full and fat and crisp. And as the kids say: the vibes were immaculate.
The band started off slow with a song from their second album which was perfect to prep the crowd for what was to come.
Adam had not listened to them leading up to the show so he’d have a welcomed surprise once the songs came back to him—instantly sending him back to his teenage years. I, on the other hand, had been listening to them at every opportunity for the past two months.
“Oh yeah, that’s it!” he yelled as soon as they started playing that first song, “Pillars.”
The crowd was so exciting for me to see—a mix of the Gen Xers and elder Millennials like us, joined by quite a shocking (or heartwarming) population of kids in their 20s. I was glad to see new generations were still finding their way to this band. (Thanks, Jacob Givens, et al.!)
I texted my old college friend Mikey a picture of the band and one of Adam and me (we were all in school together back then): “Now I can say I’ve finally seen Sunny Day Real Estate.”
“OHHH SHIT I LOVE IT So jealous! I wish I was there!” A perfect response.
The experience was pretty euphoric for me. I soaked it all in and let the bass and rhythm run through my body and the lights flash on my face and just felt it all, hugging and holding Adam tight when a particular part of a song spoke to us. It was all just so stepped in nostalgia and I felt like a kid again—running around carefree and kid-free, listening to incredible bands and drinking into the wee hours of the morning with those I loved most in the world.
Tears flowed down my cheek but a smile was on my face.
And Beau was there. Everywhere.
Jeremy, the lead singer, stopped at one point and just stared at us in the crowd:
“Y’all having fun??” he asked. We screamed. “I’m having so much fun. Thank you for letting us do this after all these years.”
They played a mix of songs off their debut (and probably most well known) album from 1994 as well as all the others up until their final album in 2000. I could tell their throats were hurting. Hell, looking around the room I knew we were all hurting just existing at 40 and beyond. Adam and I had laughed about all our random aches on the drive. But here, we all were. Rocking out again like we used to.
Then they played their bangers.
One of them, “Seven,” has a chorus that is a perfect call-and-response couplet of “You’ll taste it, you’ll taste it… in time.”
It felt like the whole crowd was holding each other (in reality is was Adam, Leif, and me) screaming back to them “Iiiiiiiiiiiiiin tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime!”
Whatever I felt at that moment, I wanted more of it.
I know what they call it… Freedom. Joy. Life.
They played what appeared to be their last song which seemed to come way too early. We weren’t letting them get away with that.
Maybe it was a little game they were playing with us. They walk off stage in a charade. We all start chanting “Sunny Day… Sunny Day!” and “Ten more songs! Ten more songs!”
Leif said, “Honestly, what else could they play at this point? I’m totally satisfied.”
“Circles.” I responded.
“Ohmygod CIRCLES!” he and Adam both said in damn-near unison.
This was my favorite song. This was everyone’s favorite song.
And they came on right then and played it.
It was another opportunity for the perfect ca
ll-and-response with the crowd and the band.
Them: “Well I goooooo! In circles…”
Us: “Running downnnnnnn!!!!”
It sounded so good. Each scream filled my heart with more delight. It was nothing short of amazing.
After that, I was fully satisfied and they led us out with a slower cut, “Days Were Golden.”
“The days were golden,
We were known to be.
We won't escape this memory.
Forward on, to the place we sail.”
Then Jeremy ended with one line, not on the original album, repeated four times.
“We’re not lost.”
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
One by one, each band member quietly set down his instrument and walked off the stage as William, the drummer, entranced us with a one-minute drum solo to end the night.
Adam and I went back to our hotel room downtown and stayed up way too late, farting and giggling like we were 15 again, before making the drive back the next morning.
I don’t know what I was expecting from this night but I was expecting something. Some emotional breakthrough. Some cathartic experience. Something. But I didn’t get that.
What I got was a clear understanding of what this new version of my life was. No matter how much I feel it, I’m not lost. I am where I am.
Getting on with my grief of losing Beau will not come at once. It will come in pieces. And in time.
That night wouldn’t ever have solved it all. Nothing will.
And what I needed wasn’t some profound, transformative experience.
What I really needed was a good night out with a great friend.