They form a circle on the dance floor, arms on shoulders, cheeks damp.
Their friend is gone, but his voice lives.
“I would like to play this song for this young gentleman who lost his life for all of us,” comes the announcement from the stage.
And with that, Brennan Stewart sings on.
His voice purrs through the sound system at Stoney’s Rockin’ Country, the locus of the Vegas country music scene and the place where his girlfriend works, taking money at the door.
A cluster of Stewart’s buddies hoist beers in the direction of the disco ball above them, paying tribute to the aspiring 20-year-old singer, who lost his life at the Route 91 Harvest massacre Sunday.
‘The music and the love’
“At the count of three, I want y’all to make some noise!” booms the night’s emcee, Stoney’s Director of Marketing Jeff “Toad” Higginbotham at the conclusion of the song.
The room explodes, all these pent-up emotions — sadness, anger, uncertainty, grief, frustration, so much frustration — momentarily purged, if not fully expelled.
It’s a bit past 9 p.m. Wednesday, and more than 900 people fill the place, which is hosting a benefit for Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak’s Las Vegas Victims Fund.
Well over $20,000 will be raised in unison with innumerable bottles of Bud Light (all proceeds from the bar were donated).
This is an all-ages event, and the crowd ranges from newborns in star-spangled onesies to silver-haired cowboys who two-step like they’ve been doing so since the Nixon administration.
“I feel like we have this community here,” observes Stoney’s founder Chris Lowden.
Why are they all here this night?
Best to answer that question with another question.
“We played somewhere else last night, they asked, ‘Why would we get back together in a big group? Why aren’t we fearful?’” singer Scotty Alexander recalled from the stage prior to launching into his performance. “Because the music and the love are greater than the fear and the hate.”
At one point, Higginbotham asks the crowd how many of them were at Sunday’s concert, like he and his girlfriend were.
Around a dozen hands shoot up in front of the stage.
Higginbotham addresses one audience member directly, Jenn Lewis, the girlfriend of Marine veteran Taylor Winston, who stole a truck in order to shuttle a bevy of fellow concertgoers to the hospital.
He wonders what this night means to her.
“Being under one roof, seeing our country family together, all the love and support, we need this,” she responds. “I need this.”
Or course, they were all still processing things.
“Monday I was OK. Yesterday was the hardest day I think I’ve ever had in my life,” Higginbotham says, recalling the terrifying moment when he was attempting to drag his girlfriend to safety as shots first rang out. “The scream and horror in her voice — ‘Don’t leave me!’ — is what I woke up to yesterday.”
What do you do, then, when it feels like everything is falling apart?
You come together.
You come here.
This is an intensely communal, close-knit scene — and not just locally.
Singer Dylan Schneider, who performed at Route 91 Harvest on Sunday, didn’t get back home to his native Indianapolis until Tuesday morning. When he heard of the Stoney’s benefit show, he caught a flight, arrived in town at 5:30 p.m., performed, then headed straight back a few hours later.
Likewise, singer Carter Winter flew in from Nashville on a moment’s notice.
Performer after performer, plenty was said from the stage, feelings shared, encouragement given.
The true essence of the evening, though, wasn’t embodied by words, but by something else.
It was the hugging of strangers.
It was the tipping of brews in a crowded room.
It was the dad spinning his young daughter by the hand, dancing on.
Contact Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.