Note: In lieu of Worth a Listen (normally appearing here on Wednesday), I'm writing this after the WinterJam just occurred in our area with a concert in Peoria Sunday night. When I posted occasional updates on Facebook & Twitter from the concert, there were a lot of questions (on FB) about how the concert, how it was, should people bring their small children, etc. This is to answer those questions as well as talk about this great I'll re-run this next year as WinterJam makes it way to our area again, so consider this a "primer" on how to encounter WinterJam successfully.
I'm a veteran, having just attended my third WinterJam. I think I've got this "down" now and have a good strategy for attending and making the most of this great concert.
WinterJam, the largest Christian concert series in the world (and largest altogether if Wikipedia is to be believed) is a traveling concert series founded by NewSong and featuring more than a half-dozen Christian contemporary music (CCM) acts.
1. Here's your first word: earplugs.
I mean this as no criticism at all, since I love virtually all the music played at the concert. If you are not a teen (and maybe if you are), you will be grateful for a good pair of earplugs. I bought a multi-pack of earplugs to share with fellow parents along with me for the concert. Happily, WCIC-FM at their merch/swag table gave away free pairs as well. That was a really sweet touch.
Note to self for next year: I'm bringing some heavier duty earplugs, as these were not quite enough, especially during certain bands (more on that later). But do plan on having some kind of ear protection. Every single musician during the evening I could see was wearing ear protection. If it's good enough for TobyMac, it's good enough for me.
2. Here are two more words: go early.
WinterJam is an unbeatable value at $10 per person, but seating is first come, first serve. The concert starts at 6 p.m., but doors open at 5 p.m. and you then choose your seats in the Civic Center arena. There is a "Jam Nation" feature that allows concert-goers to get in early, but you must have a group of at least 10, and then it is $30 per ticket. I consider this still an excellent value. I would have loved to do this in 2013, but I started organizing the WinterJam-interested families I know too late. After many back and forth e-mails, I couldn't get to the 10 threshold before my deadline.
As it was, some of our group arrived about an hour and a half before the 5 p.m. doors opening. We actually would have arrived much earlier, but it was freezing rain most of the day, and I thought we'd have to wait outside. Turns out the Civic Center opened a large room for people to wait, and there were official looking WinterJam people lining us up and warning us not to jump lines, or we'd have to go to the back.
Around 4:45, they started to let us into the Civic Center arena, and because we had arrived pretty early, we obtained some pretty good seats. We had not wanted to be on the floor, so our lower bowl seats near the stage were great for us.
Last year when we attended, the weather was much better (Peoria was the last stop on the tour), and we arrived early with a student council group. What I loved about this was a pre-show concert by two acts not well-known at the time for those waiting in line. We heard both Group 1 Crew and For King & Country, both vastly more well-known this year. Here's a photo from last year:
All around the arena, there are tons of "merch" tables for the various artists, as well as Christian ministries that are part of WinterJam. It's worthwhile if you are there early to walk around and get to see everything.
3. Don't bring the whole family. Or do. This is really particular to your family.
The first year we attended WinterJam, our whole family attended, but we only stayed for about the first hour. It was too much noise for the younger kids in our family (7 and 10 that year), and my husband said, like NewSong sings each year at WinterJam, "This world has nothing for me..." (He does like CCM music, to a point). So we agreed that I would be the WinterJam designated person, and he would teach our children to drive. I consider that a fair trade.
A few people have asked about what age ranges would be good for WinterJam. I've seen toddlers happily dancing at WinterJam (not a whole lot of them), but it seems to be best for tweens and teens, and their music-loving grown-ups. You know your kids.
4. Understand the rhythm of WinterJam.
After going to WinterJam for three years, I can share what is the formula for a WinterJam. I think it is a good mix.
Pre-show: this would include the time outside, and any pre-show bands. There was not a pre-show band concert, perhaps because of the weather.
First "half." This is like a warm-up for the bigger acts to come. Each act plays for perhaps four to perhaps six songs. It's annoying both when an act you like plays too few songs, and also when a not-so-great band plays more than you'd like. Either way, these pass quickly.
Sometime in this first half, NewSong plays. NewSong is a more "mature" group than most of the other WinterJam acts, as I pointed out to a fellow parent along with our group, but those men can sing. They play a few songs, talk about their vision of starting WinterJam, and promote World Vision, the charity sponsor of the evening. Throughout the evening, concert-goers are encouraged to adopt a child in a third World country through World Vision.
A young pastor named Nick Hall gives a kind of sermon during this first half. It's basically a non-denominational talk about following Jesus. More on that later...
Then there is an intermission, which is a good time to walk around and check out the merchandise tables, or get a snack. Some practical matters: food and drink is something to consider. I had a big late lunch, and brought along an apple and a bottle of water to have during the intermission. That worked for me, since a concert for me, unlike, say a baseball game, is not a time I want to have arena-type food like nachos or hot dogs.
Second "half": After the intermission are the "big" acts--this year it was Matthew West and TobyMac. They were both well worth the wait.
Sometime during the second half, there is a "love offering" collection taken up to support the ministry of putting on WinterJam. Worthwhile knowing that this takes place and considering what you might do when they pass the bucket.
Finally, be prepared for the night to end super late.
After the concert, there is a big crush as people try to leave. We ended up staying around a little later because we kept running into people we knew, and chatting about the concert. After that, we realized most of the "first half" acts were available for autographs, so we got a few autographs and photos.
Our 15-year-old was most excited to meet and say hello to Jamie Grace. She truly loves (understatement) all of Jamie's music and especially her sense of style:
We also met OBB, three attractive brothers with a "boy band." OBB had announced during their concert, "like us on Facebook, because we were homeschooled, and we need all the friends we can get!" The arena erupted in screams, as you can imagine. When we met them, I introduced all the teen girls in our group as homeschoolers or former homeschoolers, and it was a fun discussion and an even funnier photo, with one of the girls nearly in tears.
By the time we got back to our minivan and then took several teens along with us back to their vehicles, and then drove home, it was just about midnight. That is late for a Sunday night (and school the next day), but well worthwhile. But if you go to a WinterJam, know that it will be a late night, and you won't be super-productive the next day.
5. Take the good, leave behind the bad.
Let me start by saying that I am hugely grateful there is a concert series like WinterJam. The group behind it, NewSong, and the promoters, are sincere Christians truly desiring to put on a good show as well as encourage others to follow Christ. Putting together this kind of entertaining, hours-long concert, and providing a good value, is no small feat, and I commend them and thank them for this ministry.
At the same time, and being real here, as a Catholic, you're not going to get the fullness of the faith at a WinterJam. Plan to be okay with that.
You might even encounter weak or even truly goofy ideas, and I don't have time to go into any of them here. You can use your imagination. But I consider those a learning opportunity for myself and those who attend with me, as we experience Christianity lived by others.
Case in point: during Nick Hall's "sermon," he had two themes: reset and recharge with Jesus. I wasn't really following along with all of it. My teen and one of her friends there told me they were annoyed because it was so "thin," so they kept adding things into his talk. When he would say, "reset," they would say, "Confession," and when he said, "recharge," they would say, "the Eucharist." I thought this was an excellent way to take away what is good about his message, and at the same time bringing in a more fully formed theology when possible.
There is also an "altar call" type of experience where they ask people to turn over their lives to Jesus. And we comment to each other, we did at baptism, and do on a daily basis.
As I told my teen, thought, I don't want us to get all triumphalist about it and exhibit spiritual pride, but it's okay to recognize where the WinterJam theology falls short. So we don't have to accept it all uncritically, or think we need to become a non-denominational Christian just because they play the coolest music. How can you leave behind Jesus in the Eucharist? As St. Peter told Him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." (John 6:68)
As I write this, the thought of a Catholic WinterJam is really intriguing. Imagine if, instead of the pastor's sermon in the middle of the concert, we had a short meditation and then a time of Eurcharistic Adoration? Wow.
6. Don't expect entirely live music, but do enjoy the live experience.
Now, a lot of this is above my pay grade and understanding of music, concerts and how these things work. I didn't follow along to the "controversy" about Beyonce not singing the national anthem at the Inauguration earlier this month, and I have attended very few concerts in my grown-up days.
But as far as my untrained eyes and ear can tell, "live music" does not necessarily mean live everything. I'm okay with that...to a point.
One of the reasons I was annoyed with last year's WinterJam was that we did stay for the last act, which turned out to be a band called Skillet.
Now, Skillet's music is decidedly not my kind of music, but that's not what made me annoyed. What did annoy me was this: I was pretty sure they were lip-syncing, except for one slower song in which the lead singer talked and sang. I am virtually certain the musicians were playing air guitar and violin and who knows what other instruments, I don't even remember, I just recall thinking, "I could air violin better than that." (Apologies to all my loyal readers who are also loyal Skillet fans. Just my take on it).
There were a lot of pyrotechnics along with this act, and I thought, they are probably not doing it live so they can dodge the fire and fireworks and so forth. We could have easily left before Skillet and gotten home earlier, but we didn't, and there goes 30 minutes I can't ever get back.
So there was a little bit of trepidation about this year's WinterJam. Would there be true live music? I was just interested to watch closely, but also enjoy myself and the music.
Since I'm not an expert or in the music industry (nor do I have time to look this up), I don't know what the current standard is these sorts of things. Is it okay to sing live before piped-in or canned music? Is it okay to pretend you're playing an instrument when you're not?
I thought several of the acts struck a good balance. For instance, Jamie Grace, a great singer and great performer, sang all her songs live. While she was backed up with music (with no visible musicians, so it was obvious it was piped in), she played a guitar along with her songs. You could tell she was actually playing along because she made a few little mistakes, and at one point, the guitar was not properly hooked up, so she was fiddling with it. I even tweeted to her later in the evening thanking her for singing live.
But there was one "hard rock" group, like Skillet last year, called "Red," that "played" with a lot of pyrotechnics and so forth. And they also appeared, to my untrained eye, to lip sync every song but one, and not to be actually playing their instruments, just like Skillet last year. Coincidence? I think not. Perhaps the tour organizers required that they lip sync, in order to be sure they could dodge the fireworks? Part of the contract?
It didn't bother me that much. Recall, I had earplugs, and I know nothing of "Red." Though, I must say, I began to be intrigued when I learned their last album was called "Until We Have Faces," thinking they might have named it after C.S. Lewis' greatest novel, but it turns out the band goes to pains to say they didn't name the album after that. Okay, never mind, don't need to find out any more about this group.
But what if I had been a Red superfan? Would I have noticed the lip syncing? Would I have cared? I do think this distracts from the overall experience to experience this kind of "live music." Just my middle-aged take on it, but you don't have to listen to me.
(UPDATED: A dad who was along with our group turned out to really enjoy Red, and their family is listening to a lot of Red music this week. So perhaps you shouldn't take my musical opinion here--though I did respond to a Facebook post on this, "I am all astonishment.")
What was amazing was Matthew West. He sang every song absolutely live, and I didn't even pay attention or care whether his back-up band and whether they were playing live or not. He was riveting as a performer, talked beautifully between his music, showed several videos of the stories behind several of his newer songs.
That is one of the features of WinterJam I really enjoy, and why I tell you to "enjoy the live experience." There are various screens and screen-type stage "decorations" (I don't know what else to call them) of various sizes, for projecting the lead singer, as well as sometimes song lyrics, as well as other images. For instance, during Matthew West's song, "Hello My Name Is...," there was a curved bank of mini-screens above the stage that flashed the words.
I also cannot say enough about TobyMac. That man can sing and perform like nobody's business, and he pulls together a terrific assortment of singers and performers alongside him. I did not hear the name of the female singer who sang next to him, but she was gorgeous as well as an amazing singer, as was Jamie Grace (again), who joined him for several songs. The songs he sang alone would have been worth the wait, the price and everything else.
There were musicians along with TobyMac, and it was clear sometimes that instruments were being played live. For instance, several of his songs featured performers walking with marching-band style drums, and you could hear the beat coming from them. But at one point, one of his crew came up to a guitar player and "air guitared" next to him, almost a wink-nod that he might not be really playing. I'm not sure, but I don't really care, because again, as I've said, the singers were all singing live, and performing beautifully.
Here's one person I'd love to have a live/not live conversation with about WinterJam, and music in general: DJ Maj. According to his Twitter account @MajPro (he actually followed me! Along with 6,000 other people, but still....): he's a God Son / Hubby / DJ For Toby Mac / Rhymer / @wepoplive / @VidiMixShow.
At one point in the show, TobyMac announced DJ Maj, and he and the other band members left the stage. DJ Maj was on a platform high above the stage, and did a "mix" of video and audio. I have no knowledge of what was "live mixed" or not, but it was engaging and interesting, and worth watching. No pyrotechnics, either. Thank you, DJ Maj.
I shot some very grainy and unprofessional cell phone videos of some of my favorite songs. If I get a chance to upload them, I will share them in future "Worth A Listen" posts.
Have you ever been to a WinterJam or similar concert? What is your take on attending these kinds of concerts as a Catholic?