Vegan Llamas Return to Campus for Military Benefit Concert
While the Students Behind Our Veterans club on campus formed in 2007 and had steadily grown through the years, they had yet to host something as big as a concert to raise funds and awareness. Only something loved enough by the inner student community at Liberty University could draw support for an unsung group like Students Behind Our Veterans.
And when club vice president Rachel Flickinger saw the student band Vegan Llamas perform at Coffeehouse one year, she knew she had found an act that stood out from the rest.
“We were looking for really different things to do that would get the campus excited about what we were doing for veterans,” Flickinger said. “We’re hoping to raise the money for our gala — it’s coming up at the end of March. We were looking to raise money and awareness.”
The club grew exponentially this semester, going from 30 members to 85. This independent fundraiser concert comes as an outgrowth of this newfound prominence.
“This is probably the biggest fundraiser we’ve ever had,” Vanessa Talavera, project manager for the club, said. “We’re hoping it’s the first of many. We had a few hiccups we had to get through with the venue and schedules and such, but thankfully, it all worked out really well.”
For Noah Felten, bassist of the Vegan Llamas, the benefit concert hit a personal note for him.
“I grew up as a military kid, moving wherever Dad went for 20 years,” Felten said. “We’ve been given a gift, so we (musicians) can give something back. So, I love to be backing an organization like this. The people tonight came for the music, but they’re also helping Students Behind Our Veterans by paying to come.”
Student musician Julia Rothenberger opened the benefit concert as an easy awakening for the crowd.
“It’s not to be impressive, it’s to be inclusive,” Rothenberger said, quieting the hearts of the party-ready crowd. “What we’re doing is on a platform outside of ourselves, putting Christ first.”
For her final song, Rothenberger performed “Stories of a V.A.,” which she had written specifically for the veterans-focused event. Her voice lilted through a rain of electric guitar strains as the perfect handover to the main act.
The room went dark. A plastic recorder — the cheap type every ‘90s homeschool mom bought to unearth her kid’s inner prodigy — merrily tooted a fanfare as the ghoulish green and blue lights beamed.
Then the keytar. Then the reverb. The audience could feel the wind and earthquake as the band’s original opening number “Better Than the Nightmare” exploded to life.
The Vegan Llamas were home.
The campus favorite has not been back on its home turf since Christmas Coffeehouse 2016, where I and other students at the time were blown away by the band’s big presence and verve — not to mention the ‘80s-esque red jacket that frontman Nick Henretty donned that night.
“Ah, yes,” Henretty said when asked about the band’s last Coffeehouse performance. “The majority of our clothes for that show may or may not have come from the women’s section of Goodwill.”
Henretty introduced the band onstage with the same wry, quirky humor and inside banter as when I met him as offstage: Jacob Tallent on guitar, Noah Felton on bass, Alex Kenny on drums and keyboardist Connor Denton, who proceeded to introduce himself on the keys. Who would have thought it was possible to “shred” on a keyboard?
“I never planned to go into music,” Denton said. “I thought I was going to be an EMT or join the military. But that was a time when I was really progressing in my walk with God, and I needed to take a step of faith toward what I loved doing. I came to Liberty knowing what I needed to do — study music. And the world of secular music needs ministry too. There’s so much need for the gospel there.”
Henretty, lead vocals and guitar, welcomed Rothenberger back onstage for a duet on original “Cheshire Blues.”
“Alistair Begg had a great line in Convo a few years ago,” Henretty said. “He basically said that chasing after the world was a futile effort because it, like the Cheshire Cat, will disappear in front of you and leave you with nothing but a taunting smile.”
The next new song in the set, “Red Rivers,” was particularly timely in its inspiration by the Las Vegas shooting, and subsequent shootings since then such as in Parkland, Florida.
“It’s one of those things we deal with in the Christian life when tragedy happens is asking ‘Where is God in the midst of all of this?’” Henretty said as he introduced the song. “I realized that I see people coming together in ways they don’t normally do. It’s like we’re programmed to be the best people when tragedy happens. We’re designed that way, and that’s how I see God show up.”
The band stepped off the stage and let Denton solo with the keys as he crooned about “wearing your sunglasses in the rain.” With his falsetto range and effortless presence, Denton seemed to be channeling his inner Freddy Mercury.
Bassist Felton also had the chance to show off his vocals later on with a cover of “Ain’t No Rest for The Wicked” by Cage the Elephant— but on the other end of the scale, more in keeping with his bass.
“I grew up in a house where Rush Limbaugh was the music — in terms of actual music, I’d say my early inspirations were Bill Gaither or VeggieTales,” Felton said. His musical taste and influences have blossomed since he got to school and graduated. A running theme for Felton in his journey of faith and music continues to be discovery. “I never know what God’s doing until he’s done. So many of our songs say that. We wouldn’t be together now if it hadn’t been for what God was doing the whole time.”
The Vegan Llamas reconvened and played everything from selections off of their EP “Weak at the Knees” to instrumental sets twinged with a banjo, which got the crowd clapping along and square-dancing — even in the mosh pit.
One of the newest songs from the band, “Tree House,” slowed down the set with a sentimental but probing reflection on how the days of childhood make-believe somehow along the way mutate into adult escapism to more destructive things.
“That song came easily,” Henretty said. “But the third verse, that first line ‘Mama, all my friends were wrong’ is always the hardest for me to sing because it touches on the intimate relationships you miss through failures and getting into bad situations.”
Henretty let the moment sink in when the song concluded, then quipped “All right, hold your breath.” The band dove right into a cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” This unpredictability could only fit the Llamas.
Denton lives in Spotsylvania, Virginia, drummer Kenny is still finishing his studies at Liberty and everybody else lives in Richmond, Virginia. The Vegan Llamas have four shows lined up after they depart campus.
Staying in the will of God by no means guarantees the success of the band, Henretty emphasized. But it has gotten the Vegan Llamas this far.
“There’s no reason besides the hand of God that we all got together,” Henretty said. “I don’t know if God listens to rock music, but I sure hope he does.”