The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
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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.”
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 »
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.
Jun3Filed under: Ichthus Festival, Music, rc talk - Christian pop culture, Religion; Tagged as: Anberlin, Britt Nicole, Casting Crowns, Chris Tomlin, Community Day, Hillsong United, Ichthus Festival, Mark Vermilion, Matthew West, Night of Worship, Phil Keaggy, Quest Community Church, Questapalooza, Rupp Arena, Switchfoot, The Almost, the Newsboys, TobyMac, wilmore, Winter Jam
The Ichthus Festival is focusing on a new market: Central Kentucky.
During the past four decades, the Wilmore Christian pop music festival has drawn fans from all over the Eastern United States and even farther away.
Ichthus CEO Mark Vermilion points to the festival’s heyday 10 years ago, when entire sections of the camping area would be made up of people from Michigan. Now, just a handful of the event’s more than 10,000 patrons are from the Great Lake State.
And the same is true of Georgia, Illinois, Virginia and other areas more than half a day’s drive from Wilmore.
“Our market has shrunk to a 200-, maximum 250-mile radius of Wilmore,” Vermilion said.
Two big factors contribute to that.
First, there’s everyone’s favorite headline: gas prices. If you think your SUV can drink up the fuel, wait until you try filling up a church van.
Also, the number of festivals and similar opportunities to see Christian bands has increased, so audiences are finding they don’t have to travel as far to see favorite bands. Even in Central Kentucky, where Ichthus used to be the sole annual Christian music event, other attractions such as two one-day festivals in Lexington — September’s Questapalooza at Quest Community Church and March’s Winter Jam at Rupp Arena — have given music fans other opportunities to see many of the same acts.
And in some ways, while there is still free camping on site and four straight days of rock at Ichthus Farm, the event is marketing itself to locals as an attraction similar to those one-nighters.
It started last year with a festival-opening “Community Night” featuring chart-topping artists TobyMac and the Newsboys. This year, Ichthus is offering two days geared toward locals. The festival will open June 15 with a Night of Worship featuring praise superstars Hillsong United. Three days later, it will close with Community Day, letting single-day attendees access the festival for a discounted price.
Both days are $25 each, if tickets are purchased by June 10, or a Night of Worship/Community Day package is $40.
“There will always be people who want to come for the full three- and four-day experience, and we believe that’s where real community happens,” Vermilion said. “But we also want the people from Central Kentucky to look at Community Day and say, ‘That’s my day.’”
I admit it. When Newsboys reached the rap in their rendition of Jesus Freak, I was hoping to hear a familiar voice start spitting, “I saw a man with a tat on his big fat belly.”
But it was indeed Michael Tait that saw his new band’s rendition through.
Then, a couple hours later, Tobymac repeated Jesus Freak in his set, delivering the rap in his familiar voice.
One of the first questions that popped into my mind when former dc talk singer Tait joined Newsboys was how he and former talk partner Toby would divvy up the old act’s classics when they shared the same stage.
Wednesday night, we discovered there’s room enough in an evening for two renditions of Jesus Freak. There was no loss of energy in the crowd when Toby launched into the searing guitar break near the end of his show. The earth did not open and swallow the Ichthus Festival for the double dip, and lightning didn’t strike the stage – kinda impressive, considering Toby’s record with Ichthus weather.
The pairing of the old dc talk bandmates was also an interesting study in band dynamics.
Newsboys has some colorful characters, particularly in super cool guitarist guitarst Jody Davis and clown prince drummer Duncan Phillips. And what can you say about a keyboardist named Frankenstein, Jeff Frankenstein? But this is clearly Michael Tait’s band now. He was the expressive, emotional leader, he had command of the tunes, he was running the show.
Toby also was running his show while developing one of the most colorful bands on the road. It sort of brought to mind Black Eyed Peas in terms of a diversity of voices and fun.
Ichthus has to deem its first “community night” a success. The hillside in the amphitheater was packed and locals seemed to respond to the deeply discounted opening night set. Ichthus executive director Jeff James indicated last night there will be a community night next year.
- Look for a slide show from community night later this morning.
WILMORE – The Ichthus Festival got started a day early this year, but the hillside in the amphitheater at Ichthus Farm made it look like Friday night as locals and out-of-towners gathered for the event’s first ever community night.
“It gives people a chance to see what Ichthus is all about,” said Karen Mills of London, who has attended the entire festival before but was only taking in community night this year because of her schedule.
Community night goers got a pretty sweet deal in concert terms: Two of Christian rock’s top acts Tobymac and Newsboys for $20. And people who bought tickets before May 31 paid only $10.
“It had every potential for us to lose our shirts, when you compare the cost of bringing these guys in to the bargain basement price we were charging,” Ichthus Ministries executive director Jeff James said Wednesday evening as fans filed in to the festival site. “But for this being the first year, it’s going great.”
Festival organizers said 3,000 people bought tickets for the community night concert as of last week, and walk-up tickets were doing brisk business at the box office, one of the few areas covered by shade. The number of walk-up ticket buyers was not available at press time.
People who had bought weekend passes for the festival were also admitted to the community night. Wednesday afternoon, they were pitching tents and preparing for a lineup of Christian rock luminaries including Switchfoot and Skillet.
And they were all for adding an extra night to the 41st edition of the oldest Christian pop music festival.
“It makes it more like camp,” said Taylor Dooley, 15, who was psyched to experience her first mosh pit at one of the metal concerts.
Spencer Dorman, a 21-year-old Ichthus first timer from Somerset said, “I’m going to have a mean sunburn by Saturday.”
Of course, the four-day run may be the hardest on the youth leaders who have to heard kids all weekend.
Jeff Walker, the youth leader at Oasis Community Church, which meets at Lexington Christian Academy, said he was feeling wonderful coming into the festival, but added, “ask me how I’m feeling again on Saturday.”
The main stage at the Ichthus Festival is about as loaded as it has been in several years, with a good variety of artists from the contemporary worship sounds of Casting Crowns to the pyrotechnic rock of Skillet. So, we’re curious who the masses are dying to see here.
Please take the poll below or, if your favorite is not listed – Vizu allows a maximum of 10 answers, so I just listed the evening acts – please reply below or direct message @copiousnotes on Twitter.
Central Kentucky, this one’s for you.
The Ichthus Festival gets started early this year with its “Community Night” on Wednesday, featuring something of a historic bill: Newsboys and TobyMac.
With Michael Tait stepping up to Newsboys’ lead microphone recently, that show will give the audience two-thirds of the iconic Christian rock trio dc Talk.
“Ichthus has been known as a festival that reaches most of the eastern United States for a long time,” Ichthus spokeswoman Tina Pugel said. “We decided we wanted to reach out to our own back yard with a low-cost, one-night experience.”
One-night tickets for the show were $10 until May 31; they are now $20 at the gate. People who have bought a festival pass also will be admitted to the concert.
Pugel said about 3,000 individual tickets have been bought for the event.
Festival organizers want the Community Night to help charitable organizations in the area and are asking participants to bring the following donations:
■ For the Hope Center: a sandwich bag filled with shampoo, lotions, razors, lip balm and any toiletry items that will fit.
■ For God’s Pantry: non-perishable food items such as canned goods, cereal, soup, macaroni and cheese, flour or money (for every $1 received, God’s Pantry can buy $10 worth of food for those in need).
■ For All God’s Children: diapers (sizes 4 and 5), baby wipes, lotion, paper towels, wrapping paper, pens, laundry detergent, masking tape.
There will be collection barrels at the festival entrance and in the Community Night tent, just inside the festival entrance.
Overall, Pugel said, festival ticket sales are up 60 percent from this time last year. She attributed the surge to a strong lineup of musical acts and lower ticket prices. The past several years, full festival adult tickets had been well above $100. This year, festival passes started at $69 in December and will be $99 at the gate.
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