Everything you always hated about Creed is right there, literally at center stage, during one extraordinary moment in late August.
The foursome is midway through its set at the Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, Virginia, an outdoor amphitheater an exit or two past the chain-store sprawl of the northern-Virginia suburbs. This is Creed's first tour in six years, and lead singer Scott Stapp has been doing his best to show his bandmates and fans that he's become a new, more humble man since they saw him drunkenly botching the words to Creed hits in concert, or alongside Kid Rock on a sex tape, getting serviced by a groupie. His middle-parted, shoulder-length bob is gone, shorn in favor of a stern Henry Rollins-short buzz cut. As he wipes his brow, he explains to the fans in Bristow that the band spent its afternoon visiting wounded soldiers at nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "This song is for the troops," he announces solemnly to a roar from the house. "You're all heroes!"
The band strikes up "What's This Life For." Spirited by a sweet, chiming riff by guitarist Mark Tremonti, the song is one of Creed's most affecting, a grunge lighter ballad about suicide. Stapp, a lifelong Evangelical Christian, wrote it after a friend took his life. "You could never find/what's this life for," Stapp moans with a palpable sense of loss, though not even this can shake his faith: After expressing pity for unbelievers ("Their souls are lost"), he closes the song with what has to be the most aggressively Judeo-Christian refrain ever heard on Q104.3 The Edge: " 'Cause we all live/ under the reign of ONE KING."
There's no time to question why Stapp has dedicated a song about ending a purposeless life to the battered survivors of the Iraq and Afghan wars. Partway through the number, a loud collective gasp begins to envelop the theater. Fans start leaping from their seats and pointing to the mosh pit. They smile at one another, they high-five, they whoop, they pump their fists ecstatically in the air. A lone rogue nerd excitedly tweets.
Here's what they see: A clean-cut man in his mid-twenties or thereabouts, wearing a white polo shirt with some sort of armed-services insignia, is being passed overhead, crowd-surfing toward the runway that extends from the stage. No biggie, except that this crowd-surfer is a soldier, and he is seated, if that's even the right word, in a wheelchair. Creed's roadies scramble to help the vet onto the catwalk, and soon he is flanked by the visibly moved Stapp and Tremonti as they rip through the big finish of "What's This Life For." The fans are freaking, like Pentecostals taken by the spirit, only in this case that spirit bonds classic-rock triumphalism to Dixie patriotism and Christian exceptionalism. The vet raises his arms and soaks up the crowd's thunderous howls of affection, pausing only for a moment to try to catch—gasp again!—a prosthetic leg (not his own) that has been tossed up like a beach ball from the maw of the mosh pit. When the song ends, chants of "USA! USA!" ring through the thick night air. The soldier is wheeled to the side of the stage, his vantage point for the remainder of the evening. The leg is passed through the crowd back to its owner.