Growing up in a rural South Carolina church taught the NEEDTOBREATHE boys about faith and family, and instilled in them the roots of real Southern rock. Meet the Charleston-based band as they journey to the other side of the country to spread the good news.
The Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre is cut into a canyon on the campus of San Diego State University, home to surfers, high-tech wannabes, tanned sorority girls and laidback frat boys. But on the night Charleston-based rock group NEEDTOBREATHE takes the stage, the atmosphere is decidedly more family-friendly.
The crowd is eclectic, polite and grows by the minute as a parade of musicians perform set after set of inspirational rock, soul, blues and folksy hip-hop for this stop on the 53-city Tour de Compadres. By the time the headliners take the stage, the place is packed with stylishly faded T-shirts sporting Christian band logos and Bible verses. Millennials are out in force, and so are Gen-X parents with teens and tweens in tow.
In a tight, eclectic set of new tracks and old favorites, the band – Bear Rinehart (vocals/guitar), Bo Rinehart (guitar/vocals/strings), Seth Bolt (base/vocals) and Josh Lovelace (keyboard/vocals) – introduces its fans to the best of its sixth studio album, H A R D L O V E, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Albums chart in July and is not what anyone necessarily expected from the Southern roots rock band with the loyal Christian following.
“We’ve made a dance record,” says Bear of H A R D L O V E, which is laced with synth sounds and layered instrumentation. “I think it’s a big departure (from 2014’s Rivers in the Wasteland). But that’s what we always think.”
Though in some sense departing from the album that peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Albums Chart and earned the band its first Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song for “Multiplied” seems like a questionable move, leaving behind the discord from that album’s creation was no doubt a step toward the light.
Bear says of Rivers, which took much longer to produce because Bear and Bo had so badly damaged their bond as brothers and band mates due to competitive spirits and unchecked egos. They eventually reprioritized family over fame, and came back stronger and closer than ever.
And if that whole chapter in NEEDTOBREATHE’s history seems to echo of another pair of Southern rock brothers, it’s a pretty fitting coincidence.
“The first band that really changed things for me were the Black Crowes,” says Bear of Georgia natives Rich and Chris Robinson, who earned both critical and popular acclaim in the early 1990s before public feuds repeatedly ripped them apart. “They were soul and rock and gospel, all these things meshed. And I think that’s inevitable. Even if we’re trying to make this modern record, a lot of the throwback stuff sinks its way in.”
That “throwback stuff” echoes all the way back to the Rineharts’ childhood. The sons of a pastor, Bear and Bo were born in the (very) small town of Possum Kingdom, S.C., and later moved to nearby Seneca where they befriended Bolt when he was just 7 years old. The threesome soon started playing music in their church after hours, eventually “borrowing” the church van to travel to gigs.
NEEDTOBREATHE got its informal start playing coffeehouses and other small venues around Furman University, where Bear was a standout wide receiver, winning the 2002 South Carolina Player-of-the-Year Award by the Greenville Touchdown Club. After releasing independent recordings in 2001, they were signed by Atlantic Records in 2005. It was a huge milestone for the group, as they had turned down a Christian label, not wanting to limit their music’s audience and airplay. But the challenge of remaining true to who they are and where they’re from inside an industry that’s constantly trying to copy, warp, critique or reinvent a band’s sound started pretty much right away.
“The first thing they told us was ‘You should be more international,’ which meant ‘Be less redneck’ — no harmonicas, no banjos. That sound was not popular at the time. It is now, but at the time it felt very rebellious,” Bear says of their early roots rock style. “It wasn’t popular to be rootsy. Everyone thought of it as bluegrass.”
But the band kept their influences intact, and the music scene began to catch up. “There were some great bands like My Morning Jacket and Kings of Leon that have made Southern music modern and they put their own spin on it,” Bear says. “And I think we kind of grew up in that.”
Josh Lovelace, raised in Knoxville on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains, joined the band in 2011, the same year they put out “The Reckoning” and, oh yeah, went on tour opening for Taylor Swift. They’ve also done the TV circuit, performing twice on Conan as well as on The Ellen Degeneres Show, The Late Show With David Letterman and a string of others.
While River gave them a renewed focus and a crossover hit with “Brother,” their collaboration with Gavin DeGraw that earned them a 2015 Dove Award for Rock/Contemporary Song of the Year and a 2016 Billboard Music Award nomination for Top Christian Song, this latest album is a much more upbeat take on the layers of life and love – and the faith that serves as the foundation for both.
“The roots show through,” Seth says. “This record has a lot more gospel choir.”
Such hand-clapping church choir vocals might be a new sound on this album, but it’s an old influence, the bandmates say, that’s actually more about the message than the harmonizing.
They prove this point easy and often to their San Diego fans, perhaps most notably with the band’s first single off H A R D L O V E, a crowd pleaser called “HAPPINESS” that debuted at No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs chart in the spring.
“We added a choir (to this one) in the studio. But we didn’t think about the live show,” Bear says by way of introducing “HAPPINESS” to the thousands on their feet before him. “You’ll have to sing that part!”
The request feels more like a gift, and the eager audience cheers as Bo dances to the undeniably catchy anthem while his brother sings.
“I’ve got dreams that keep me up in the dead of night / Telling me I wasn’t made for the simple life / There’s a light I see but it’s far in the distance / I’m asking you to show me some forgiveness / It’s all for you in my pursuit of happiness.”
Jubilant fans raise their arms in praise and their voices in joy:
“Singing ohh, happiness!”
“Singing ohhh, happiness!”
And it fills the night.