The long goodbye

with I Can Make a Mess
Like Nobody's Business,
Person L, Deas Vail
8 p.m. Saturday, April 10
and 7 p.m. Sunday, April 11
The Social, 407-246-1419
all ages

It was at a late-March concert in Pomona, Calif., when something occurred to Copeland guitarist and Orlando resident Bryan Laurenson that he hadn't thought of before. Looking out at a sea of nearly 1,000 devoted fans, some of them near tears and all of them shouting every word of the song, Laurenson filled in gaps of the autumnal hymn, "The Day I Lost My Voice (The Suitcase Song)" with light feedback over singer Aaron Marsh's confessions that he's "always trying to run, run, run away," and thought, ‘This is the best song we've ever written.'

Laurenson had every right to allow nostalgia to creep in. They were beyond the halfway point now of Copeland's farewell tour, the final shows they would play together as a band. (The victory lap comes to an end this week with two sure-to-be-emotional dates in Orlando.) It's the culmination of nearly a decade that saw Marsh, Laurenson, bassist James Likeness (who's no longer with the band), Laurenson's brother, Stephen and drummer Jonathan Bucklew find each other in Marsh's home base of Lakeland, sign to a major label and help influence (along with Tampa pioneers Underoath) an entire genre that brought more attention to the I-4 corridor's church-reliant music scene than any other band this decade.

Even more unlikely than their rise is the nature of Copeland's decline, a long-but-genial process that began years ago.

"Aaron and I had a conversation about four years ago saying we felt so fortunate and blessed," says Laurenson, "and how we were totally fine if the tour we were on `at the time` was our last. It's nothing but good memories, which is another reason that it felt right ending things now. Being able to do this last farewell tour was important to us. A lot of bands don't get that chance to control their breakup, and be able to see the fans one last time."

Laurenson will forgive the fans if some of them don't feel so fortunate. Perhaps thanks to the ministerial nature of their genre, Copeland's followers are a dedicated bunch.

"There's been a lot of sad fans, but there's a lot of them who are encouraging and understand, and are looking forward to what's gonna come next for all of us," says Laurenson. "It's definitely bittersweet."

The devotion has been hard earned. Over the course of four studio albums, Copeland, and especially Marsh's urgent, plaintive songwriting, have stood out from the pack thanks to their versatility and emotional honesty. From their first album track, "Brightest," to their last, "Not So Tough Found Out," both of which feature sparse instrumentation, heartbreaking harmonies and Marsh's search for love and warmth, Copeland has excelled at all manner of sounds. Their pile driving, '90s-tinged breakup anthem "No One Really Wins," from 2005's In Motion, beautifully interwines with their softer, equally captivating ballads like 2008's hopeful refrain, "Chin Up." At no point does the music of Copeland deviate from earnestness, a quality that quickly caught the eye of Columbia Records.

"When I think back, one of the memorable points was `when` we were on a tour bus on a headlining tour, and we just finalized the deal with Columbia," says Laurenson. "That would definitely go down as a pretty cool moment."

It was a short-lived flirtation. Copeland had just released their third album — and their first to crack Billboard's Top 100 — in late 2006 when they signed the deal, leaving their former label, the Militia Group, with no incentive to push for sales and Columbia no reason to do much with it either since it wasn't their baby. The guys navigated their newfound wasteland and decided to push forward with a fourth album. It was at that time that Rick Rubin was named co-head of Columbia. Rubin brought in his established crew, leading to drastic layoffs.

"Eventually, our A&R guy left the label and, at that point, we knew we were sunk," remembers Laurenson. "A baby band on a major label that hadn't put out a major record yet? We were gone."

Marsh, prematurely it turned out, announced Copeland's breakup. That's when Christian indie label Tooth & Nail Records came to the rescue, agreeing to release Copeland's music without major-label wrangling. Copeland released their final album, You Are My Sunshine, in late 2008, and the album went to No. 48 on the Billboard charts. At some indefinable point, they knew they had done all they could with the band. "There was never that moment where my eyes were opened," says Laurenson. "It was just a slow, uncomfortable feeling."

For better or worse, one just has to look around at the Florida pop-rock scene to witness Copeland's legacy, including former Tooth & Nail label mates and Orlandoans Anberlin, who cracked Billboard's Top 20 in 2007, and the huge successes of Florida-tied ministry bands like Paramore and Marsh's side project, Anchor & Braille.

"It feels weird taking credit for inspiring other people to create art," says Laurenson, who's planning a pop-rock project with brother Stephen after the tour. "There's been a healthy amount of great bands coming from that area now. Part of me chalks it up to
coincidence and timing."

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