The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
Thursday afternoon, Fireflight lit up the main stage at the Ichthus Festival that was already scorching under 90-degree heat. Lead singer Dawn Michele made the edge of the catwalk her home, and the band, led by guitarist Glenn Drennen, seemed to relish the opportunity to play for the big crowd.
The Florida-based band was showing a maturity in performance and energy that fulfills some of the promise in its 2008 monster hit, Unbreakable. The song still sits near the end of Fireflight’s set, but it wasn’t the carrot to keep you listening that many hit singles turn out to be. This set was engaging in its own right, and it sort of made me forget how disappointed I was in Fireflight’s latest album, Now, which came out earlier this year.
It sounded like a band trying too hard, trying to recapture that dramatic energy of the breakout hit with histrionic – not dramatic – songs and performances. On the other end, there was too much gloss. “It sounds like Christian music,” my teenage daughter said in an assessment that was not meant as a compliment. To my ear, it wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t as authentic or engaging a statement as I was hoping for from a band this far into its career.
It felt like Fireflight lost edge and was starting to sound like the product of a Christian music machine that always seems to like things a little sanitized, even if fans and critics say that’s not what they want.
Thursday, the edge was back. There was an abandon in their performance and urgency in their message that overwhelmed the heat and the crowd to create one of the most bristling moments I saw at Ichthus this year.
It was a direction Fireflight should try to follow the next time they go into the studio, because they do have the makings of a great band.
See more: Photo gallery from Thursday at Ichthus.
You’d have to get up pretty early to beat a quintet of Winchester girls to the front row of the main stage at the Ichthus Festival. Thursday evening, before Family Force Five went on, Natalie Howe, Ashley Vanlandingham, Morgan Young, Samantha Hudson and Monica Curtis were holding onto a spot they claimed nearly 12 hours before.
There were some varying purposes for the Clark County teens half day vigils, starting at 8 a.m.: Howe and Vanlandingham’s dedication was to see Family Force 5, while the rest of the group was dedicated to Thursday night headliner Tobymac. For their enthusiasm, they were rewarded not only with a a front row vantage point to watch the boys from the dirty, dirty South and Tmac. Mainstage manager P.L. Mitchell was so impressed with their committment he gave them a backstage tour and festival personnel had first-in-line passes made up for them when they went to the fan tent for Family Force 5. Only Howe and Vanlandingham availed themselves of that privilege as the others were holding tight for Toby. But those girls got even more than they bargained for, getting to meet FF5 and have their pictures taken with the band.
It was all worth it, they said, particularly when Family frontman Solomon Olds, aka Soul Glow Activatur, went right over top of them in his crowd surfing bubble.
You might think after a very long day camped out in the 90-degree heat these five would sleep in on Friday morning. But no. Several will be up to regain that front row for Friday’s lineup including Red and Disciple. A few of them even did it on Wednesday for Switchfoot.
Fest officials may want to check with these girls before making the 2013 lineup, because clearly they inspired some dedicated fans this year.
Just five years ago, if you were sitting at your campsite at the Ichthus Festival wondering, “What’s going on over there?” at the festival site, you’d have to get up and go see.
Now, you can whip out your smartphone or tablet, or just check your texts.
The annual Wilmore Christian music event’s social media strategy has been evolving continuously; it now incorporates Facebook and Twitter, apps for Apple and Android devices, a text messaging network and even an old-fashioned radio station.
Ichthus also has created more wireless Internet zones at the festival site and strengthened its cellular signal to keep the data flowing.
“The most exciting thing about social media is it gives us a direct connection to the people we serve in a public forum,” Ichthus director Mark Vermilion said.
Tim Gerst, the festival’s I-media coordinator, says, “We want social media to be our No. 1 marketing tool because, for the most part, it’s free.”
It is a network that has been building over time.
The Ichthus Festival has not sold the farm, but it will continue with a full-fledged 2012 edition.
On the closing night of the 42nd annual Ichthus Festival in June, festival president and chief executive Mark Vermilion told the crowd that Ichthus Ministries was in financial straits that could force cancellation of future events. Two days later, the festival site in Wilmore known as Ichthus Farm was put up for sale, with organizers hoping to find a buyer who would lease the property back to Ichthus each June for the festival. The asking price began at $900,000, well below offers that the festival says it received from developers in the middle of the past decade.
On Tuesday afternoon, after a Monday meeting of Ichthus’ board, Vermilion said that the site has not been sold, but “there have been enough positive things happening in the last few months that we really felt like we could do a 43rd edition of the Ichthus Festival and do it with the same level of quality that we’ve always had at the festival. Once we knew we could do that, we were ready to pull the trigger.”
Vermilion said Ichthus is not out of the woods financially. He said the organization has radically reshaped its financial model, downsizing from five full-time staffers a few years ago to three part-timers now. They also have put a heavier emphasis on fund-raising. As for the property sale, Vermilion said, there have been discussions with a few potential buyers and there are hopes that a sale will be completed in four to six months.
“That would really reduce our overhead,” said Vermilion, who also teaches at Asbury University and is helping to launch its new center for cultural engagement.
Ichthus, which started at Asbury Seminary in 1970, moved to its current 111-acre home off U.S. 68 in Wilmore in 1999. At that time, the festival attracted 20,000 people a year. Recently, after moving the event from late April to June after repeated bouts with inclement early spring weather, crowds have been more modest, about 15,000. That’s due to the schedule change and to the changing dynamics of the Christian concert market, organizers said. The 2011 festival, Vermilion said, was the first edition in more than five years not to lose money.
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