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.”
The past two years when Winter Jam rolled through Rupp Arena, it featured the new incarnation of the Newsboys with now-not-so-new frontman Michael Tait.
Furler famously stepped away from the Newsboys in 2009, with little word as to what was next for him.
“I didn’t leave them to go solo,” Furler says. “It wasn’t the usual story of the singer that wants to get his songs out and wants to make his own style of record. I was already producing the records, writing all the songs and playing a lot of the instruments. I was really fulfilled in my role and loved that time with the lads.”
His leaving was more about needing a break from extensive touring.
He describes it as part of a process of divesting himself of big things that were occupying his attention.
“We kept looking at all the stuff we had and how you had to work not only to get that thing, but to maintain it,” Furler says of himself and wife Summer Andrea LeFevre, daughter of iconic Christian musician Mylon LeFevre.
“It was kind of like getting off a missions trip. You know, people come off a mission trip and they kind of re-evaluate and see how fortunate they are and make a change. For us as Christians, we begin to see practical things in the Bible: ‘Don’t wear yourself out to get rich.’ ‘Have the wisdom to show restraint.’ ‘The borrower is slave to the lender.’ They’re in the Bible, so why do we, just because of the culture we’re in, live completely opposite of that?”
Furler said he and LeFevre had fun getting rid of things, and finding fewer expectations and obligations pulling at him.
But he was never going to lose music. He always would have iconic songs such as Shine, and an ability to write and perform more.
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.’”
Mar19Filed under: album review, Country music, Music, rc talk - Christian pop culture, Religion, Reviews; Tagged as: A Mother’s Prayer, All Time Gospel Favorites, Butcher Holler, Clinch Mountain Boys, Come All Ye Tenderhearted, David Crowder Band, Glenn Donnellan, Loretta Lynn, National Symphony Orchestra, Ralph Stanley, Rupp Arena, West Liberty, Winter Jam
Toward the end of its Winter Jam set last Saturday night at Rupp Arena, the David Crowder Band treated us to a little bluegrass. As he has done on his last few visits to Kentucky, guitarist Jack Parker strapped on his banjo, and Crowder led the 16,431 people in the crowd on a stomping sing-along of I Saw the Light.
The roots of that performance run all the way back to Butcher Holler, home of a singer named Loretta Lynn. In a 2006 interview with the Herald-Leader, Crowder recalled seeing Lynn perform another gospel tune on the farm-themed satellite channel RFD Network, which he and the rest of the band were watching on their tour bus.
“Loretta Lynn happens to be on this one show, and she just rips into this one song, Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven,” Crowder said, “and we’re like, ‘Oh my. … She just can sing,’ and you feel it, she means it. Her execution of that lyric was fantastic.”
Crowder’s performance was just the latest of several experiences illustrating how closely faith is tied to traditional and country music.
Two recent albums brought that home for me, particularly the arrival of Ralph Stanley’s A Mother’s Prayer, which is coming out April 19.
The album centers around Come All Ye Tenderhearted, a song that Stanley and his brother composed. It was based on a ballad about a 19th-century woman from Carter County who lost both of her infant children in a house fire.
Newsboys may be the comeback story of Christian rock.
I purposely did not qualify that statement with “of the year” or “of the decade.” Christian pop has never been a genre that completely let faded heroes of the past back into the limelight, and just three years ago, Newsboys looked like it was essentially done.
Back then, it would have been hard to belive Newsboys would be headlining the most successful Winter Jam tour ever, as of last night in Rupp Arena, and they’d be putting on a killer show. But Saturday night, before a crowd of 16,431 paying customers, the resurgent quartet showed off the perfect formula for rebirth.
The key ingredient is new frontman Michael Tait. Here in Central Kentucky, we’ve been able to watch him grow into this role a bit as Newsboys played the Lexington area three times in the last year. But last night, he was perfectly at ease exhorting the crowd, playing every part of the stage and drawing from two iconic bands’ catalogs of hits.
That’s part two of the formula: With Tait, Newsboys credibly performs its own catalog and that of his former band, dc talk. That would make this a greatest hits act if not for the third ingredient, some terrific new material like the title track from the new chart-topper, Born Again. It gives Newsboys a cross-generational appeal they might not have otherwise had.
Mar11Filed under: Ichthus Festival, Music, rc talk - Christian pop culture, Religion, Rupp Arena; Tagged as: Anthony Armstrong, Break Me Down, C.S. Lewis, Chris August, Conan, Faceless, Feed the Machine, Francesca Battistelli, Ichthus Festival, iTunes, Jason Castro, Joe Rickard, KJ-52, Kutless, Michael Barnes, Newsboys, NewSong, Randy Armstrong, reathe Into Me, Red, Rupp Arena, Sidewalk Prophets, Skillet, TBS, the David Crowder Band, Till We Have Faces, Tonight Show With Jay Leno, Until We Have Faces, Winter Jam
In 2006, the band Red released its debut album, hoping someone would listen.
The group wasn’t even on a label at the time, but slowly people tuned in to the hard-rock sounds of the disc, which spawned the hits Breathe Into Me, Break Me Down and a couple of other chart-toppers. The album ended up nominated for the Grammy Award for best rock or rap gospel record.
Five years later, Red doesn’t release albums quietly.
Quickly after the Feb. 1 release of Until We Have Faces, Red was hovering near No. 1 on iTunes’ sales charts, and the band was booked on TBS’s Conan and NBC’s Tonight Show With Jay Leno, national television debuts for the band.
“We can’t even believe the numbers that are coming in,” guitarist Anthony Armstrong said a few days after the album’s release. “Some amazing things are happening.”
For Central Kentucky fans of Red, one of those things is a slot on the Winter Jam tour, which comes to Rupp Arena on March 12. The bill is topped by the resurgent Newsboys, the David Crowder Band, Kutless, Francesca Battistelli, Jason Castro, Chris August, Sidewalk Prophets, KJ-52 and tour hosts NewSong.
But Red is easily the hottest band at the moment on the show, like many other bands successfully crossing the line between mainstream and Christian venues.
“We try to play the same way whether we are playing in a church or a bar,” Armstrong said at last summer’s Ichthus Festival. “We want people who see us to say, ‘Those guys are the same no matter where they play. They’re not putting on an act or trying to hide anything.’”
One thing Red showed very well at Ichthus, where it was the Friday evening main stage opener for Skillet, was that it could play to a huge crowd — sort of like the one it will see in Rupp Arena, where last year’s Winter Jam drew 14,756 fans.
As street weeks go, this one is off -the-charts for Nashville rockers Red.
Unit We Have Faces sat perched upon the iTunes chart as we started our conversation with guitarist Anthony Armstrong, and the quartet had just booked its national television debut, an appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show Feb. 8 (11 p.m., TBS). They’ll be on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno the following week.
“This album has some of the hardest songs we’ve ever written and some of the most commercial stuff we’ve ever written,” Armstrong said.
We were chatting for a story that will appear early next month to preview Red’s appearance on the Winter Jam tour, which hits Rupp Arena March 12. But with Until We Have Faces such a hot topic now, this seems like a good time to let you listen to our interview.
Hit play to hear our conversation about the new album, lead singer Michael Barnes’ voice and Red’s talent for playing really big venues such as the Ichthus Festival and Rupp.
Dec31Filed under: Music, rc talk - Christian pop culture, Religion; Tagged as: Aaron Gillespie, Anberlin, Britt Nicole, Chris August, Disciple, Family Force 5, Fireflight, For Today, Francesca Battistelli, Ichthus Festival, Jason Castro, Josh Garrels, Josh Wilson, KJ-52, Kutless, LeCrae, Living Sacrifice, MikesChair, Newsboys, NewSong, Project 86, Red, Remedy Drive, Rupp Arena, Sidewalk Prophets, Skillet, Sleeping Giant, Superchick, The Almost, the David Crowder Band, The Letter Black, Trip Lee, Winter Jam, Underoath
The new year hasn’t started, but we already can tell Christian music fans about a few things to look forward to in Central Kentucky in 2011.
Chief among them is, of course, the Ichthus Festival, which already has started releasing the lineup for the event, which will be June 15 to 18 in Wilmore.
Some of the new names coming to the main stage include longtime fan favorites Anberlin and newcomers The Letter Black, along with mainstage returns by Family Force 5 and Disciple, who weren’t there last year. There are a number of returns from last year, including Skillet, Superchick, Red and LeCrae, who brought some highly credible hip-hop to the main stage last year.
Christian music has had trouble embracing hip-hop over the years, but this year’s festival will be further evidence that hard rock is having no trouble finding its way in the genre, with heavier acts on the main stage and the growing prominence of the Deep End stage, which will feature acts including Project 86 and The Almost, Aaron Gillespie’s Underoath side project, which has grown into a substantial act in its own right.
Ichthus 2011 will again open on Wednesday night, with a community concert like last year’s Tobymac, Newsboys lineup, and it will include the acoustic Galleria stage. In years past, Ichthus had a grand lineup announcement, but now organizers trickle it out primarily on their Facebook page (Facebook.com/ichthus).
In addition to the acts mentioned above, the lineup thus far includes Jason Castro, Fireflight, Remedy Drive, Mikeschair, Chris August, Sleeping Giant, For Today, Josh Wilson, Josh Garrels, Living Sacrifice, Trip Lee and Britt Nicole.
Tickets for Ichthus 2011 are on sale at Ichthusfestival.org. (If you are reading this Dec. 31, you can still get in on bargain basement rates if you buy before the new year.)
Long before that, when the weather will be more like it is now, Winter Jam will hit Rupp Arena for the fourth straight year. And for the third straight year, it will be a Saturday night. On March 12, the set will feature Newsboys, the David Crowder Band, Red, Kutless, Francesca Battistelli, NewSong, KJ-52, Sidewalk Prophets and Chris August. Newsboys were here last year in their reconstituted lineup featuring Michael Tait, and event hosts NewSong and Francesca Battistelli have been at the Rupp event before. But the rest of the lineup is new to the event, including the Crowder Band, a onetime Ichthus staple whose last big local date was a fall 2009 show at Southland Christian Church.
As in previous years, admission for Winter Jam is $10 and only at the door. For more information, go to Hearitfirst.com/winterjam.
Mar6Filed under: Ichthus Festival, Music, rc talk - Christian pop culture, Religion; Tagged as: Born Again, Breakfast, dc talk, Duncan Phillips, Fireflight, Ichthus Festival, In the Light, Jeff Frankenstein, Jody Davis, Mac Powell, Michael Tait, Newsboys, Peter Furler, Rupp Arena, Shine, Something Beautiful, Tenth Avenue North, Third Day, TobyMac, Winter Jam
Last winter, Christian music fans received some of the most shocking news in the genre’s history: Newsboys frontman Peter Furler was stepping down from the microphone, and former dc Talk singer Michael Tait was taking over.
Third Day frontman Mac Powell said the move, fusing two of the biggest bands in Christian rock history, was like McDonald’s joining Burger King.
Tait was as surprised as anyone when he got the call.
“It was a pretty heavy mantle,” Tait, 43, recalls. “They said, Peter wants to step down and spend more time with his family — his mom and dad are getting older, living in Australia. But the Newsboys don’t want to quit, and you’re at the top of a very short list of able cats. I thought, ‘Oh boy.’ Newsboys were my old competitors, if you will, back in the day.
“So I prayed about it, and thought about it and said, ‘This could be fun. Let’s see what happens.’ But to tell the truth, I went into it with one eye open thinking, we’ll see how it goes.’
“Now, 130 shows later, I freaking love it.”
The singer says it’s like being in a garage band without the hassle of hauling amplifiers and sleeping in the back of a van.
Central Kentucky audiences have their first chance to see the Tait-fronted Newsboys on March 13, when the band plays the annual Winter Jam concert that is stopping at Rupp Arena for the third straight year.
They’ll be joined by headliners Third Day and supporting acts such as Fireflight and Tenth Avenue North.
Out of all those acts, Newsboys definitely sports the biggest curiosity factor, particularly since it has not released a new album since Tait took over. Read the rest of this entry »
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