It’s been three months since Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington was tragically found dead at his Los Angeles home after hanging himself. In that time, the five remaining band members have understandably kept low public profiles. But this past Friday night was a special occasion.
At the encouragement of producer guru Rick Rubin, who worked with the band on three albums and was instrumental in pushing their musical reinventions, plans were made for a return to the stage at the Hollywood Bowl. Linkin Park had originally been scheduled to perform at the venue with Snoop Dogg on October 22, but this night’s performance carried a different title: Linkin Park & Friends Celebrate Life in Honor of Chester Bennington.
“We haven’t gone out together in public, we haven’t played or gone onstage,” Mike Shinoda told KROQ in September when the show was first announced, the only interview the band has done in months. “[Rubin] said, ‘The fans want to see you, but most importantly not because they want to see a show, but because there’s a cathartic experience that needs to happen. I think it’ll inform what you guys are doing.’”
Rubin was spot-on in his assessment—the concert was cathartic for everyone in attendance, including the seemingly endless stream of guest musicians that joined Linkin Park onstage and the millions around the world that streamed the event on YouTube.
“There were some fans that we met outside last night,” Shinoda said during a break in the action, earlier admitting that putting together the concert was one of the hardest things the band has ever done. “We were rehearsing really late and they were here the whole time. It was like most of the day and into the night they were out there. They gave me hugs, and they gave me reassurance, and they told us that it’s going to be OK.”
Shinoda described the show’s feeling as “musical whiplash” at one point, afterwards saying, “I feel like I got hit by a car, but it was worth it,” which nailed the way the unconventional setlist was put together. A person who worked with the band used the words “angry, sad and joyous,” another apt summation.
To me, the evening felt like an amalgamation that was one-part rock show, one-part awards ceremony and one-part memorial service. At three hours, it was easily the longest outing of Linkin Park’s career, and the most emotionally charged show I’ve witnessed firsthand.
In an Instagram post Friday morning, bassist Dave “Phoenix” Farrell quantified it well: “Grief comes in waves. There are stretches of time that feel normal, happy, and peaceful. There are stretches that carry an underlying, dull pain. Today feels different. It hurts. It’s a sharper pain than what I’ve become used to, a larger wave. I don’t know what to expect tonight, but I know that it’s significant. It’s a marker of sorts in my life… a night I will always remember.”
The Empty Mic Stand
For the third proper song of the night, Linkin Park played an instrumental version of “Numb,” one of their biggest crossover hits with lyrics especially relevant to the occasion. A mic stand was placed in front of the stage, wrapped in a green vine and illuminated by spotlight, the rest of the band enveloped in blackness.
It took the crowd a few bars to realize what was going on—that for this song there would be no singer and it was up to us to carry the tune in Chester’s place—but by the time the first chorus hit, everyone was belting the words along. It was hard not to fill chills ripple down your spine in the moment.
The mic stand came out once more towards the end, this time accompanied by Chester’s wife, Talinda. She delivered a heartfelt speech of thank-yous, highlighting the hashtags #FuckDepression and #MakeChesterProud, and closing with a call to recognize mental health is as important as physical health.
In memory of Chester, she will be devoting her life to streamlining access for the treatment of mental illness and changing the culture around it. A new resource, 320 Changes Direction, named after Chester’s March 20 birthday, has launched as a result in partnership with Give an Hour.
The Concert Really Was a Celebration
The somber notes are going to linger in my mind the longest, but overall the night was an upbeat and life-affirming affair. The impressive guest list ranged from metal and punk to pop and electronica—Steve Aoki, Avenged Sevenfold, Blink-182, Bring Me the Horizon, Civil Twilight, A Day to Remember, Echosmith, Kiiara, Korn, Machine Gun Kelly, Julia Michaels, Alanis Morissette, One Ok Rock, Sum 41, System of a Down, Yellowcard and Zedd.
A tribute video featuring members of U2, Metallica, Paul McCartney, Thirty Seconds to Mars, Guns N’ Roses and Depeche Mode was also played. Needless to say, a festive spirit was in the air of an all-star collaborative vibe, while Shinoda was full of his usual quick whips and jokes, despite the proceedings.
Then simply as a fan that has seen Linkin Park perform 11 times before, it was fun to see what songs were selected and how they were interpreted, which even included a string quartet on a handful. “A Place for My Head” has long been at the top of my Holy Grail of songs I’ve wanted to see live—according to setlist.fm, it has not been played in L.A. since 2004—so to finally get that was a personal treat.
Another, “Roads Untraveled,” one of my favorite cuts from 2012’s Living Things, made its live debut. It goes without saying everyone wishes the get-together was under different circumstances, but those involved made the actual show itself a sight to see.
No One Can Replace Chester
With that said, it soon became apparent after the first handful of guest singers that nobody was going to be able to replicate what Chester did. As the years have gone by, he has become more and more undervalued as a rock singer and frontman. His energy live was off the charts, not to mention he had a singing-to-screaming voice for the ages—his guttural scream during the bridge of “Given Up” in a 2007 AOL Sessions was unreal.
No one really came close to matching that, though the efforts made were admirable. The singers that fared closest were probably those from the One More Light section, which makes sense since those are more pop songs than traditional Linkin Park songs and the actual co-writers were the ones performing them.
Periodically in between songs, homemade videos were also shown of Chester that highlighted three things—what a goofball he was, his passion for charity work and the love he had for others. A speech given in response to the Manchester Arena bombing was especially touching. His absence is going to be felt by many.
But one of the moments that particularly broke me was when the band played “New Divide” along to a video of Chester performing the track the last time they played the Bowl in 2014. Coincidentally, that was also the last time I saw Chester sing, while my relationship with “New Divide” goes back to 2009 when I attended its live unveiling at the Transformers 2 premiere in Westwood.
Like the empty mic stand, once you realized what was happening and that Linkin Park was playing with its singer for a final time, it was difficult not to be overcome with emotion.
“Looking for an Answer”
While the reaction to One More Light, the album, was unquestionably split, the response to “One More Light,” the song, has been much more positive. And for good reason, because it’s arguably the most poignant song in the Linkin Park canon. Written about a friend of the band’s who passed away from cancer, the song took on a new meaning during a heartbreaking rendition in honor of former tourmate Chris Cornell on Jimmy Kimmel Live! back in May, and again in the wake of Chester’s own too-soon ending.
I knew going in it was going to be the emotional peak of the show and the band seemed to agree, placing it nearly exactly in the middle of the set to serve as an intermission of sorts. This time it was Shinoda on lead vocals, though, followed by a segue about what the band has been going through lately. I’ve never heard 18,000 people more quiet.
“It’s not one emotion that we’re feeling. I have to imagine you guys are feeling the same. It’s a rollercoaster of everything, one after the other, and you can’t predict when it’s going to go left on you. The thing that helps us get through it is each other. I’m very grateful for that. So thank you.
“We were doing a photo thing when I found out about Chester. For hours, I was just in disbelief. I couldn’t believe what anybody had to say about anything. Fast forward, you go through a whole rollercoaster of things. Eventually, I realized that one of the things that always helps me get through something is not only listening to music, but actually playing music.
“At the time when I did this, I don’t think I even had the courage to listen to our music yet. I hadn’t even listened to one of our songs yet. But I sat down in my studio and I wrote something. It was about eight days after, and I want to share it with you guys tonight if that’s OK.”
The song was a sobering piano ballad called “Looking for an Answer” and a raw companion to “One More Light.” If the band continues, Shinoda said it will be the first piece in that direction, and the song’s progress will be tracked online for fans. That led into a solo piano run-through on the first verse and chorus of “Waiting for the End,” another with all-too relevant lyrics now. For the sole frontman remaining, who seemed bravely together for most of the night, that 10-minute stretch was when the cracks shown through the most.
Linkin Park Has a Uniquely Close Connection to Their Fans
I was able to meet Chester and the rest of the band once in 2008. As a member of the LPU, I was selected with 14 others to attend a kickoff event for that year’s Projekt Revolution Tour. We met at Warner Bros. Records in Burbank, were blindfolded, put in the back of a limo and driven to the band’s rehearsal space.
A short set then took place, with us LPU members sitting on the ground in the front, meaning Chester was only four feet away and actually screaming in our faces. It was awesome. Afterwards, they hung out, signed setlists and posed for pictures. They say never meet your heroes, but the six guys in Linkin Park couldn’t have been more professional or down to earth. It’s a moment I still think back upon regularly all these years later, and I would later have the privilege of interviewing Shinoda for Living Things and the return of Fort Minor.
The genuine connection between Linkin Park and their fans probably stems from the members themselves, one of the closest bands I’ve come across that you never hear infighting or things of that nature about. No matter how big the band got, or how many people wished they would go back to their old sound, their interaction has stayed constant. They are incredibly active on social media and even do the little things, like stay onstage after every show, waving to fans and giving them handshakes. There might not be another artist that offers the kind of access and transparency Linkin Park does.
And my story is not alone. In the initial days after Chester died, gatherings and heartfelt tributes popped all over the world about him and how the band’s music has helped people through difficult times. Outside the gates of the Bowl, a memorial wall was set up for fans to write messages to Chester and the band, and by the end of the night it was overflowing. If it wasn’t for that symbiotic relationship, this concert never happens.
Shinoda seemed to suggest as much at the outset and again when introducing “In the End,” a song he traditionally goes into the pit for during the audience sing-along in the bridge. “Our special guest on this one is our special guest of the whole night. Our very, very favorite. And that’s fucked up to say, because there’s all these great people that have come out, and if I say that then it makes them look bad. But I do mean that it’s our favorite guest—it’s you guys.”
What would have sounded like corny sentimentality on any other night rang true instead.
For the majority of my music-listening life, Linkin Park has been THE band for me. I first heard about the group a couple months before Hybrid Theory was released on October 24, 2000. My favorite band at that time was P.O.D., who was supporting their third album, The Fundamental Elements of Southtown. A year later and both would be mainstream success stories, but back then P.O.D. had announced they were taking Linkin Park out on their third-ever national tour, the Kings of the Game Tour.
P.O.D. had previously turned me onto Project 86, the second band on that bill, and even though the tour wasn’t coming anywhere close to where I lived, I had to know who these new fresh-faced friends of theirs were with the red hair and blue-flaming tattoos. The first Linkin Park song I heard was “Papercut,” then “One Step Closer,” and boy, was I hooked. Hybrid Theory remains to this day the album I have listened to the most.
As the band grew more and more popular (over 70 million albums sold worldwide), or were for a time the biggest rock band on the planet, I never felt like I had lost that connection I had to them and their music in those early days. From literally tape recording the first time “Somewhere I Belong” played on the radio (I sure don’t miss the pre-streaming days!), to being obsessed with Minutes to Midnight in college, to seeing the band jump from genre to genre on their most recent albums, Linkin Park has been a staple in my life for the last 17 years.
I may not rank them at the very top of my all-time favorite bands anymore, and I certainly don’t think their music deserves to be above criticism or that they’re free of mistakes, yet my life and music-listening habits will forever be linked to their music. From junior high through young adulthood, these were my guys, and Chester my voice. The morning of July 20 was as stunned as I’ve been in my life.
Though Shinoda said they don’t know where they go from here, my gut tells me they continue in some form or another. Whether as a five-piece or with the help of a new singer, I do not know. Linkin Park is more than a band at this point, not counting all the business investments or relief work done on the side, and today’s hip-hop driven music scene makes for prime stylistic real estate.
But for three hours at the Hollywood Bowl, the future was not as important. Creating a platform to heal and grieve, laugh and celebrate—“A night I will always remember,” as Farrell put it—was.
“I want everybody here tonight to look at the person standing next to you and tell them you love them and you’re happy that they’re here with you tonight, having a good time, listening to music, celebrating life,” Chester said via a video clip after his wife had spoken. “We don’t care what you look like, we don’t care where you come from, we don’t care what you believe in. We love every single one of you out there. And nothing will ever change that.
“With that said, let’s sing some songs together.”
Originally appeared on Behind the Setlist