Last Friday night we attended Winter Jam 2008, an annual Christian music tour featuring a variety of contemporary Christian artists. I initially went because Barlow Girl was going to be there. Having purchased one of their CDs, I was interested to hear how their tunes would come across live. But while there, I also fell in love with the music of Skillet (pictured).
The event was held in the arena on the Ohio State University campus with 10,000 people in attendance. We stood in a long line in twenty degree weather since the event was general admission at the door. We got pretty good seats near the stage in spite of the fact that there was no reserved seating. Here is my short review of each act:
Warm up acts included pureNRG, three acrobatic kids (ages 11, 12, & 14) who sing, dance, and have been featured on Radio Disney. They do back flips, cartwheels, and everything else. My wife commented that this is what happens with too much Mountain Dew and Snickers. There was the soul/rap act, Group 1 Crew. They somehow manage to be melodic and the only female member has one powerful voice. So does Mandisa, the woman who brought Jesus to American Idol and forgave Simon Cowell on national television.
Acoustic, folksy duo, Connersvine, performed a couple of songs. They consist of Chris Wilson and Hunter Smith (Smith plays football for the Indianapolis Colts). They added more variety with beautiful songs and harmonies.
The show was hosted by Newsong. Now here is one impressive group of musicians. Their professionalism stands out on hits like "Blessed be Your Name" and "Defining Moment." These guys are really versatile in terms of musical styles and some members play multiple instruments. One of the more talented groups out there.
The headliner of this tour is usually Mercy Me, but since they couldn't make the Columbus show, Steven Curtis Chapman was filling in. But that's okay with us, since we love Steven Curtis Chapman and this is one way I persuaded Gretchen to go. He's another one who is just a bit louder and harder live than on CD. His songs included "The Great Adventure," "Live Out Loud," Magnificent Obsession," "Cinderella," and "Children of God."
Of course Barlow Girl (cell phone picture on the right) rocked the place with powerful live renditions of "Grey," "Let Go," "Never Alone," "Average Girl," and a medley of "I Believe in Love" and "I Need You to Love Me." On CD, these three sisters are pretty versatile, with ballads and beautiful vocal harmonies included. But don't see them live unless you want to rock out. I'm almost embarrassed that I still like this kind of music---almost.
In spite of all these great performers, a highlight of my evening was Skillet. These guys were AWESOME! They are a powerhouse of energy, creativity, and sensationalism--with music accompanied by pyrotechnics. You could feel every beat of the drums in every bone of your body. It was loud, hard driving, and over the top. When they were done I asked Gretchen, "So what did you think of Skillet?" She replied, "I feel like I've been hit by one."
Skillet's musical style is described on the Skillet Wikipedia article as one that "spans the musical genres from grunge, to electro-industrial, nu metal, to alternative rock, and even hints of goth metal influence." Skillet's latest CD, Comatose, respects Skillet's musical roots, while exploring new territory. A review on the Winterjam website describes it like this:
Classic rock riffs, swirling drums, monstrous hooks, and undeniably catchy choruses...hints of old school progressive rock mixed in with modern alternative flourishes...touches of classical influence as swelling strings intersect with sonic adrenaline rushes.
I was a huge rock fan as a youth, but I haven't been impressed with much that's come out over the last twenty years. Part of that could be that since becoming a Christian, the lifestyle reflected in the lyric content no longer speaks to where I'm at or ever want to be again. Rock has also evolved. Gone are the progressive styles of bands like Kansas, ELP, and Styx. Not many guitar legends or guitar dominant music have taken center stage the last two decades. The goth and grunge have, for the most part, been talentless excuses for music with "singing" that sounds more like someone throwing up. Lyrics are often immoral and fatalistic.
Isn't it ironic that it's Christian bands, like Skillet and Barlow Girl, who (IMO) are taking rock back to its roots. Skillet's music has evolved and matured to include a progressive element. There are also shades of grunge, even with lyric content that deals with darker themes. But the difference is that Skillet's lyrics offer hope as opposed to fatalism or apathy. And Skillet has talent. Guitarist Ben Kasica could be the next guitar legend.
There may be hope for rock music yet, but it surprisingly exists in Christian circles. That is where progressive elements, three chord jam, and guitar dominance are being restored. And with lyrics that don't undermine our lifestyle. Too bad that many of the a cappella tradition are so far out of the loop with what's going on. There is something for every musical taste in today's Christian music scene.