Young fans gathered inside Orlando’s House of Blue Saturday night for the annual concert to celebrate one of the area’s most visible rock do-gooders, Jamie Tworkowski. Tworkowski is the founder of the Florida-based non-profit organization, To Write Love on Her Arms, which devotes itself to bringing attention to the teen issues of suicide, addiction, and cutting. Christian-tinged emo rock has wisely become TWLOHA’s chosen outlet, and Orlando happens to specialize in the devotedly followed nice-guy genre.
Considering the bitter cold outside, the wood-paneled HOB took on the unlikely feel of a log cabin, insulating and nurturing the warmth of the night’s mission. Musically, the huddled mass of all ages mostly 15-year-old girls but also enraptured middle-aged men and a few little scamps were rewarded with briskly paced sets and virtuoso vocal performances.
Folksy Cocoa Beach native Damion Suomi kicked things off with the rollicking “Burn the Pain,” then choked up dedicating a cover of David Bazan’s “Hard To Be” to his father, who died last week.
New Yorker Zach Williams followed with a booming voice and accompaniment from a fiddle player and a female backup singer. His impassioned “Names That Fell” captivated the spellbound crowd, setting the stage for Lakeland, Florida’s Aaron Marsh of Copeland. Marsh, one of Florida’s best entertainers and an important figure in the scene’s development, punctured the mood with a cover of Paramore’s “Misery Business,” drawing a hearty laugh from the audience before admitting, “I’m gonna do a couple of light ones then we’ll get back to depressing.” It was a comment he later retracted and apologized for, claiming it was “insensitive,” which in itself is as emo as it gets.
That sense of stoic deflation was a curious through-line of the event, which labeled itself “Heavy and Light.” Tworkowski occasionally strolled to the mic between sets for brief fits of mutual-interest promotion and encouragement but his presence eventually took on the pallor of portent. “We mourned a death, we grieved and then we celebrated friends,” Tworkowski announced. “That’s ‘Heavy and Light.'”
Tworkowski’s friends got in on the monologues. One of TWLOHA’s staffers recounted the loss of a friend with quivering pauses; Tworkowski conducted an onstage Q&A with the former girlfriend of his friend who committed suicide (the poor girl looked terrified, to boot); reps from a local counseling office discussed the homeless problem and tersely asked, “Don’t clap for a minute.” Another TWLOHA friend was selling soaps for African girls and at one point an audience member fainted, interrupting one of Tworkowski’s stories, to which he sheepishly admitted, “I was upset for a second that people were talking over me.”
But the music itself continued unabated, with stellar acoustic sets from smiley Stephen Christian of local majors Anberlin, Texan Bryce Avary of the Rocket Summer, and Mat Kearney, whose full-bodied, Chris Martin-esque voice only stuttered once when his attempt to insert the evening into a song backfired. “Meet me in Orlando on a Fri…er…Saturday night,” Kearney chuckled.
Another clutch source of light — maybe the event’s best — came in the puckish form of unfortunately named spoken-word poet Anis (pronounced Uh-niece) Mojgani, whose deliriously descriptive stories and bon mots were more than welcome in the face of the heaviness. “I can only hope for more Anis,” said one completely serious attendee delivering the night’s most improbable phrase.
The night’s quite literal come-to-Jesus moment, however, was Underoath’s Aaron Gillespie, whose closing acoustic set was met with deafening screams and squeals. It’s not hard to see why, as Gillespie’s long red hair thrashed and his Sebastian Bach affectations wrapped in born-again proselytizing felt like a throwback to ’80s cock-rock sans any trace of irony.
The act could have been insufferable if it weren’t for Gillespie’s natural ease and good nature with the audience. One of the night’s first sing-alongs kicked off with a blistering rendition of “Southern Weather,” followed by a Zach Williams-assisted cover of “Where the Streets Have No Name” before getting quickly back to “Jesus loves you” platitudes. Judging by the swooning girls in attendance, something tells me his explanation of “Dirty and Left Out” “I was committing some sins and feelin’ dirty,” Gillespie admitted might not have landed with the message Gillespie intended.