The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
The organization that presents the east and west coast Creation festivals will resurrect Central Kentucky’s Ichthus Festival, though logistically it could be a very different event from the one that played for 43 years in Wilmore.
Ichthus, widely regarded as the original contemporary Christian musical festival, announced it was closing in December and put much of its physical and intellectual property up for auction early this year, primarily in an attempt to pay off outstanding debt.
But at the Winter Jam concert at Rupp Arena in March, the crowd of nearly 17,000 was the first to hear the news that Ichthus would return, and more information would be coming soon.
Festival director Mark Vermillion said it took a little bit longer than he and the new festival owners had hoped, but this week they announced that Ichthus will return in late September 2014 as a three-day, Thursday to Saturday event.
“The thing I’m really excited about with Ichthus being part of the Creation team is that we have very, very strong values alignment,” Vermillion said of Come Alive International, which produces the Creation festivals, as well as other Christian music festivals and events around the world.
“The things that have been important to Ichthus throughout its history are very important to the Creation team as well. Those things would be a ministry focus, doing things with operational excellence and being culturally innovative.”
Creation Festivals executive producer Bill Darpino echoed Vermillion’s assessment that there is a unity in purpose and history between Creation and Ichthus that persuaded the group to acquire the festival.
“We’re really excited for the future of Ichthus and coming in and becoming part of that family,” Darpino says. “The history there, the legacy, the ministry component really just resonated with us.”
Creation Festival Northeast started in 1979 in a park in Lancaster County, Penn., and later moved to its current venue of Agape Campground in Mount Union, Penn. Creation Northwest started in 1998 in George, Wash., and is now held in Enumclaw, Wash. Come Alive also produces the Sonshine Festival in Willmar, Minn., as well as events in Haiti and Ghana. Read the rest of this entry »
See more: Winter Jam 2013 photo gallery
Tobymac is one of the unlikeliest No. 1 artists to headline a Rupp Arena concert.
The former dc talk member operates firmly inside the contemporary Christian music world, but charted a No. 1 album overall on the Billboard Top 200 list last August with the debut of his latest effort, Eye on It.
Topping the bill at Saturday night’s Winter Jam concert, Tobymac (the stage name for Kevin Michael McKeehan) showed off the secret weapon in his success: his long serving Diverse City Band.
With him pretty much since he departed dc talk in 2001 for a break that turned into a solo career, Diverse City has formed into Christian music’s tightest ensemble capable of serving its frontman’s many moods: now we’re a hip-hop act, now we’re a rock band, now we’re worship, now we’re a drumline. One of the most illustrative moments was the pairing of the meditative Steal My Show and Boomin’, which sounds like its title. Falling back, a few members of the ensemble supported T-mac’s moment, and then we’re tight around him for the big number.
Steal My Show is Tobymac’s prayer to God to work through his music.
It is also something the other artists on the lineup, seen by an audience that packed 23,000-seat Rupp Arena to the rafters Saturday night, threatened to do.
Winter Jam has now made Rupp a regular stop, and this was one of its strongest, tightest presentations with even early evening artists like Royal Tailor giving arena-worthy sets and Red looking like a headliner itself with its blazing performance. When Red came to Winter Jam two years ago, it was stuck near the beginning of the lineup and missed by many who didn’t get into the arena until after the quartet played.
Saturday, they were highlighted after Nick Hall’s message and delivered a quick cathartic lineup with hits from their last two albums, Until We Have Faces (2011) and this year’s Release the Panic.
Sharing a lineup with Red and Toby, mellower acts Matthew West and Newsong, Winter Jam’s host band, also delivered surprisingly engaging sets. West, in particular, was electrified and funny, at one point joking everyone would leave with a copy of his new CD, Into the Light … if everyone went to his merchandise table and bought it. “This isn’t Oprah,” he joked. “I have to feed my kids.”
I did not get to see every act Saturday, as I had to leave the arena for a while to report and write an item for the Herald-Leader about the resurrection of the Ichthus Festival.
Newsong’s Russ Lee announced from the stage that the 43-year-old festival, which closed late last year due to financial troubles, is being brought back by the people who bought the intellectual property of the festival, including its name and website. Ichthus had a table at Winter Jam, and former director Mark Vermilion said more detailed announcements should be coming later this week about when and where an abbreviated Ichthus will be presented this year. He said the new owners, whose identities were not disclosed Saturday, want to bring back a full-fledged Ichthus, which ended as a four day-three night event, in 2014 and after.
So, Winter Jam will not have to fill the roll of Central Kentucky’s biggest annual Christian music event. But as it has proven before, it’s great in its own right.
Up until the end, Tobymac was a major part of the Ichthus Festival. His headlining appearance Thursday night at last year’s edition was the last of many at the annual Wilmore Christian music festival, which announced in December it is closing after 42 years.
We caught up with Toby this afternoon for an interview to preview his upcoming appearance headlining Winter Jam at Rupp Arena, March 16, and talked to him about the No. 1 debut for his latest album, Eye On It, his former dc talk bandmates’ new gigs and all sorts of other stuff. More on that, later. But we couldn’t let him get away without asking about Ichthus, where we watched his solo career grow:
“I didn’t just watch my solo career grow there, I watched dc talk’s career there. It’s a sad day for sure. That festival has meant a lot to me.
“I remember when the festival was struggling a little. I remember my agent called me and said, ‘Would you be willing to do it for this?’” he said, referring to his performance fee. “I said yes, because it was tough financially, and we wanted to be there for Ichthus because Ichthus has been there for us and for the people.
“I can remember one of the first times we really connected with a big audience was at Ichthus. I remember the guy that signed us drove from Nashville to watch us, and I just remember him after the show going, ‘Wow! That was electric. This is going to work.’ I remember that distinctly. So obviously, when I began my solo career, I looked to Ichthus too to be one of the electric moments. And it always was. One year, it was so electric the show got cancelled.”
Actually, that happened twice.
Tobymac was slated to perform Friday night at the 2005 festival when severe thunderstorms ripped through the festival, forcing the cancellation of that night’s performances by him and Audio Adrenaline. The storms were ushering in a cold front, and the next day it snowed on Ichthus. The next year, the festival was moved to June after one too many tangles with early spring weather. That didn’t fix everything, as Toby’s 2008 appearance was also lost to storms.
“It’s too bad,” he said of Ichthus’ end. “Ichthus was one of the foundational, pioneering festivals.”
Greg Barrett and his seven companions were kind of conspicuous at the border of Jordan and Iraq.
“We looked like spring breakers, a group of unarmed Caucasians,” he said of the group that included Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne in all his dreadlocked glory.
Quickly, a group of U.S. Army soldiers arrived in Humvees, and Capt. William Don Foster assured the group that if they went into Iraq they would likely be kidnapped and decapitated.
Decapitated — a word they heard several times.
The captain was legitimately concerned, Barrett said. Since he’d been in Iraq, three of Foster’s interpreters had been kidnapped and beheaded. Foster had to watch the videos.
“I was ready to turn around,” said Barrett, who remembered his wife told him before the 2010 trip not to do anything foolish. “But peer pressure is a wonderful thing. Sami said it wasn’t true.”
While it is easy to presume many Iraqis would see this Western group as synonymous with their enemies, Claiborne, Iraqi-American Sami Rasouli and their fellow travelers had different experiences.
In 2003, several of them traveled to Iraq as the United States was getting ready to invade under the pretense that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
“They were going to reside in the middle of ‘shock and awe,’ ” Barrett said. “Some people said they were suicidal. Not at all. They were courageous.”
The Americans were trying to help and show the Iraqis a different side of the United States than they were about to see.
And they survived, only to be injured in an auto accident as they were leaving the country. Just when their journey looked extremely dark, the group was rescued by Iraqi Muslims and treated and protected at a devastated clinic in the town of Rutba.
“The story of American Christians being rescued by Iraqi Muslims resonated with me because I was in Iraq in 2003 and was amazed at the kindness that I was treated with,” Barrett said.
Barrett, a longtime newspaper writer for a number of papers including the Baltimore Sun and USA Today, was in Iraq with Gannett News Service. His aim was to put a human face on the people who were about to be on the receiving end of the U.S. invasion, though he was a little apprehensive about how he would be received.
On one of his first days in Iraq, he was in a crowded market and became separated from his group.
“I was in a crowd of Iraqis, mostly men, and there was no mistaking me for an Iraqi,” Barrett said. “I am a dirty blond American.”
But the entire 45 minutes he was alone in the crowd, no one laid a hand on him except a man who told him the zipper on his bag had opened, and he was in danger of being pickpocketed.
It was one of many instances that solidified in Barrett a belief that regardless of ethnicity, religion or nationality, people are essentially the same.
And that is what he sought to chronicle in his new book, The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq, which tells the original tale and the story of Claiborne and crew’s journey back to Iraq in 2010.
The gist of his presentation is the theme of unified humanity, despite walls people put up, such as the walls between Jews and Palestinians on the Gaza Strip.
“I was there with Shane,” Barrett said. “The walls are as high as San Quentin — they are a literal manifestation of fear. We were on both sides of the wall, and everyone was really the same: they love their children, they love their friends, they want security.”
Of course, when the group returned to Rutba, there was a little fear on both sides. When they arrived, Barrett said, they were initially questioned by local officials about what they were doing there. But after they understood the mission was to say thanks and show a different side of America, Barrett said, the Americans were greeted warmly, and the mayor even gave them his security detail while they were there.
It was an experience that would not have been possible, Barrett said, if they had turned back or come armed with their own security.
“There is a huge difference in showing up with our own security detail with guns pointed saying we want to be friends and showing up with our hands extended and no guns,” Barrett said.
On the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, it’s a message Barrett and Claiborne, who has helped promote the book, want to convey.
“You can’t bomb the world into peace,” Barrett said. “You have to build dynamic relationships, not expensive wars.”
One of the challenges that faced the now-closed Ichthus Festival and vexes other Christian rock presenters these days is a relatively small group of acts that can be legitimately billed as headliners.
There are plenty of bands and solo artists that can ably fill opening and smaller stage slots. But as far as Christian artists that can top a bill and attract audiences in the thousands and even tens of thousands, it’s a fairly small and somewhat stagnant club.
“There just aren’t a lot of headliners in Christian music,” says Mark Vermilion, the last executive director of Ichthus, which announced it was closing earlier this month after 42 continuous years.
“When there are so few headliners, it creates problems for us because they are so saturated with tours like Winter Jam and other festivals. We all have to go to the same well to get headliners.”
Tim Gerst, a Central Kentucky native who has worked in numerous aspects of Christian music, says, “The industry needs to figure something out because it’s hard to attract audiences when you consistently present the same 6 to 8 bands.”
Generating excitement about the acts at the top of the bill is harder when that group headlined the previous year or topped the bill at another festival or their own headlining tour that recently passed through the area. The groups have headliner status because they are widely liked, but the novelty can wear off.
This year’s edition of the Winter Jam tour, which stops at Rupp Arena in March, will feature Tobymac, 48, who just headlined at Ichthus. Last year’s Winter Jam presented the same situation with Skillet.
Skillet, with its pyrotechnic spectacle of a show, headlined Friday Night at Ichthus for several years until this year, when the spot was taken by Red, one of the few acts to emerge as a legitimate headliner in the last few years. Red is also coming back on Winter Jam.
In fact, every headlining artist at this year’s Ichthus had headlined the event before, including worship artist Chris Tomlin, who closed the festival for the second straight year.
Vermillion says the shallow pool of headliners for big events has come up at meetings of Christian Festival Association, not just because of the small pool, but it is aging too.
If the actors on Two and a Half Men keep chomping like this, show creators Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn might not have any hands left.
Just over a year after Charlie Sheen’s meltdown that led to his departure from the show and replacement with Ashton Kutcher, half-man Angus T. Jones, 19, is going in the other direction to bite the hand that has fed him for nearly a decade.
In a video recorded in his trailer at Warner Bros. Studios with Christopher Hudson of the Apocalyptic Christian website Forerunner Chronicles, Jones’ denounced the show as “filth” and told viewers not to watch it.
“I’m on Two and a Half Men, I don’t want to be on it,” Jones said in the video. “Please stop watching it. Please stop filling your head with filth. People say it’s just entertainment … Do some research on the effects of television on your brain, and I promise you, you’ll have a decision to make when it comes to television, and especially with what you watch on television. It’s bad news.”
The video came out just a few weeks after an episode in which his character, Jake, was engaged in a flagrantly sexual fling with a character played by America’s onetime sweetheart, Miley Cyrus. I don’t watch the show much, but last night I did catch an episode in syndication that sort of proved Jones’ point, from a conservative evangelical viewpoint: Sheen’s character, Charlie, was giving a much younger Jake girlfriend advice using cupcakes as a metaphor for sex.
The clip is part of a larger video of Jones’ testimony on the website in which he talks about going to a Christian school while he was on the show and getting into drugs and materialism until late last year when he was contemplating future endeavors (the half-hour testimony is in two parts).
“I had said, ‘God’s definitely going to be a part of this,” Jones said of his plans. “And it kind of hit me, ‘No, God is the center of all this, God is the reason for all this.’ And right when I said that, I had this feeling of warmth, acceptance, love.”
He said that at that moment, “I felt like I just accepted God into my life.”
He said after that, he contemplated whether to continue doing the show, aware that it was a compromise with his new-found beliefs.
Later in the video, he said, “You cannot be a true God-fearing person and be on a television show like that. I know I can’t.”
But will he be?
Jones did not say he is quitting the show, and Monday, representatives of CBS and the show had no comment on the video. According to England’s Daily Mail, Jones’ mother claims he is being exploited by the church.
It has been pointed out in most accounts of Jones’ testimony that he makes $350,000 per episode of the show, which would be a nice annual salary for most people. Numerous commentators have accused Jones of hypocrisy, cashing checks for something he believes is immoral. But remember, he was 10 when he started on the show, pursuing an acting career his mother suggested as a good way to make money for college. And he is under contract.
His beliefs are still forming — I think few of us hold all of the same convictions we had when we were 19.
But now he has declared beliefs and he will have some life decisions to make. In the video, he talked about possibly using his position on the show as a forum for evangelism, though it may be hard to take him seriously if he continues in a show that basically has promiscuous sex as its centerpiece. But if he is no longer on the show, how loud will his voice be? Could he pursue a career like fellow-former child star Kirk Cameron, who is now a speaker and something of a superstar of Christian film? And if he did, would he just be preaching to the choir?
Show producers may be making some of those decisions for Jones. After all, they have written around the loss of a major character before.
From a TV viewers’ perspective, you have to wonder if Jon Cryer has a meltdown in him, and what form it might take.
Or will he just be the last man standing?
Audio Adrenaline has taken a page from the Newsboy’s playbook enlisting a former member of iconic Christian rockers dc talk to restart the band, which had for the most part ceased recording and performing in 2006 when vocal problems silence lead singer Mark Stuart.
Last month, Billboard magazine reported that dc talk’s Kevin Max has become the band’s new frontman, and the newly reconstituted group has released a new single, Kings and Queens, and will have a new album in early 2013. Audio A formed in the 1990s at Kentucky Christian College (now University) in Grayson and went on to record some of contemporary Christian music’s greatest hits including Big House and Hands and Feet.
But in the mid-2000′s, Owensboro-native Stuart developed spasmodic dysphonia, which creates spasms around the larynx that have left Stuart unable to sing. After an extended farewell tour, the group disbanded though Stuart and bassist Will McGinniss have continued to be heavily involved with the band’s Hands and Feet orphanage in Haiti and occasionally gave performances to raise awareness of the project, including an appearance at Broadway Christian Church earlier this year.
The reconstituted band is signed to Fair Trade Services. McGinniss is the only member of the band when it disbanded that will be actively performing with the new group. Stuart will continue as a writer and producer. According to Billboard, former members Tyler Burkum and Ben Cissell had moved on and were not interested in joining the new lineup.
That new lineup will include drummer Jared Byers, keyboardist Jason Walker and a familiar face (and hairdo) to Christian rock fans in former Superchick guitarist Dave Ghazarian. When last we saw Ghazarian in Central Kentucky, he was playing in the pickup band for former Newsboys frontman-turened-solo artist Peter Furler.
That brings us back to the Newsboys playbook, as Newsboys are now fronted by another third of dc talk, Michael Tait, who joined the group in 2009.
The other third of the group, Tobymac, has enjoyed a thriving solo career for more than a decade since dc talk went on a seemingly permanent hiatus.
But Christian rock fans have to be imaging the possible supertour of Tobymac, Newsboys and Audio Adrenaline.
Over nearly a decade, the band’s fans learned the moniker was a dual tribute to skateboard master Tony Hawk and a favorite store in the band’s native Ontario. But now, Dunn has a simpler question to answer: Who is Jason Dunn?
The answer is he is the former frontman of Hawk Nelson, now striking out on a solo career that starts its first tour Saturday night at NorthEast Christian Church.
“We had a really good run, and I’m really proud of how the band went,” Dunn says in a recent phone interview. “From 2005 to 2008 were really massive years for us, and we had a really, really good time.
“But in 2009, I could just sort of feel we were losing momentum, and I didn’t want to fall off the face of the earth, so I thought it was time to go out and try something I’ve been wanting to try since I was a little kid: to make a solo record and take another stab at it and try to keep momentum up. So here I go.”
Hawk Nelson is continuing as the trio of frontman Jonathan Steingard, bassist Daniel Brio and drummer Justin Benner. Dunn, meanwhile, has spent most of 2012 searching for that solo voice.
“I was the voice of Hawk Nelson, and I can’t get away from that, no matter how hard I try,” Dunn says of his new music.
And he tried.
TobyMac’s new album, Eye On It, made a little music sales and Christian music history last week when it landed at No. 1 on Billboard Magazine’s Top 200 album sales chart.
T-Mac’s fifth non-seasonal studio album was the No. 1 album in the land last week, the first time since 1997 and only the third time that a Christian album topped the overall best-seller charts, and we’re going to do some qualifying of those other two. The last No. 1 was LeAnn Rimes You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs, which topped the chart for three weeks. But Rimes was already an established star in the pop and country markets with No. 1’s to her credit in mainstream music. Shortly before that, Bob Carlisle’s Butterfly Kisses went to No. 1. Carlisle is a Christian market artist, but the title song, a father’s reflections about his daughter on her 16th birthday, was a pop culture phenomenon in its own right. The album was actually a reissue of the album it originally appeared in on, Shades of Grace, which was retitled for the re-release.
So, it is fair to say that TobyMac is the first Christian music artist to take an album to No. 1 based on his own starpower and the music he has made.
It’s a mark that has been a long time coming. Numerous Christian artists such as Casting Crowns have sniffed No. 1 in recent years. And TobyMac’s former band, dc talk, made its own history with its 1998 release, Supernatural, which debuted at No. 4, at the time an unprecedented bow for a Christian band.
“Depending on whether you see the music industry’s glass as half-empty or half-full, this either points to a long-running genre that has built a healthy audience or simply done a better job holding on while most other music sales have tanked,” wrote Ben Sisario of The New York Times. “According to Billboard, 27 percent of TobyMac’s sales came from Christian retailers and bookstores.”
You could also attribute it to a savvy releases strategy as late August is a fairly light time for new music releases, making it an easier week to make a run at No. 1. Eye On It’s main competition came from the hip-hop collective Slaughterhouse, whose Welcome to: Our House bowed at No. 2, and Alanis Morissette, who hasn’t been a chart powerhouse since the mid-1990s and saw her Havoc and Bright Lights come in at No. 5.
It is fair to say TobyMac’s music has endured a lot longer in the faith-based market than Morissette’s in the mainstream.
If someone was going to bring contemporary Christian music a No. 1, it is entirely appropriate it is Toby McKeehan who has played a huge role in dragging along a genre that is often behind the times. Read the rest of this entry »
Aug23Filed under: rc talk - Christian pop culture;
On several occasions during a week in Chicago this summer, some adults in our group said something like, “This is so cool. I remember when I was in youth group, we just went and had fun.”
Now this is not to degrade my youth group experience in Virginia Beach, Va., which I will always treasure. But while we did do some service projects, and I remember a trip to help flood victims in Western Virginia clean up, our trips tended to lean toward theme parks and youth conferences. But this summer, I went on my second urban mission trip in three years with my daughter and her youth group at Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church. And for both middle school and high school students at Maxwell, that is what they do in the summer: They go somewhere where there is a need, help and ultimately learn.
It is a wonderful thing to watch your child do.
No, our youth and youth leaders are far from killjoys — we have Sunday afternoon of Messy Games last weekend and plenty of skiing and Kings Island excursions to prove that. But the culture there is if we are going to organize a big caravan somewhere, it is generally going to be to serve and learn.
And it’s really heartening to see in the gallery of mission trip photos gathered for out Life + Faith section Saturday how many other other congregations do the same thing. Groups represented served as close as Kentucky communities including tornado stricken West Liberty and as far away as Kenya and Uganda.
Our group of Maxwell and Pisgah Presbyterian high schoolers went to the South Side of Chicago to serve with a group called DOOR, which stands for Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection. The organization works with faith-based and social service agencies around the city to provide workers to do everything from working in community gardens to making food for hungry people to simply listening to people living with AIDS and HIV tell their stories. Working on the insanely hot Fourth of July week, our students left behind a lot of sweat and consumed dozens, if not hundreds of Nalgene-size bottles of water. And they had nary a complaint. If anything, they said they didn’t feel like they had worked enough.
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich