Last week as 20,000 people prepared to rock out in central Minnesota at the 2004 Sonshine Festival, I wasn’t exactly excited. I’d be attending the three-day Christian music event with my church’s youth group as an adult leader. That meant three days in the hot sun chaperoning whiney teenagers. It’s never as bad as that, but I just wasn’t pumped.
But by Saturday afternoon dust clouds were rising all around me as I skanked with half-a-dozen of my youth group kids and hundreds of other rockers to the sounds of the Insyderz. My three days were filled with good music, lots of laughing, a bit of yo-yoing, and plenty of fun. Whiney teens they were not (for the most part); a rocking festival it was.
Over the three days I rediscovered music of my youth, discovered new bands, and pulled out my yo-yo for the first extended yo-yo jam in a long time. As you can imagine, the youth group kids saw the secret life of an ordinarily quiet and reserved leader.
Bring on the Noise
Much of my musical highlights for the trip were reliving the music I listened to in high school, which to my continuing surprise is still popular with kids ten years younger. The teens were probably sick of stories that started “when I was in high school…” As expected, the music was predominantly guitar-driven rock by a bunch of pasty white men. Females and non-whites did exist, though in most cases you could count them on one hand. The biggest disappointment (at least among our group) was the fact that the border police turned back Toronto-based Thousand Foot Krutch (and by extension FM Static). At least we know our country is safe from Canadian rock bands.
And now a band by band review:
The first day was hands down the worst day for music. We arrived late enough to miss Guerilla Rodeo (though the band’s appeal has fallen sharply with the departure of former Five Iron front man Reese Roper), which would have been worth watching. I escorted our kids to see John Reuben, which was an OK show. I sat cross-legged in the shade through Kutless, the highlight being a little boy thrashing on his inflatable guitar. The evening saw Jeremy Camp, Skillet and Third Day. I somehow managed to miss most of Jeremy Camp (don’t remember how or why), and Skillet I suffered through in the comfort of our shade tent, which was close enough to the main stage to hear everything loud and clear (emphasis on loud). Skillet’s a bit much for my liking. I took in half of Third Day from the tent, but then came out to the edge of the crowd for the rest. It was a decent Third Day show, though nothing amazing. The best part of the day was quoting the Simpsons while making fun of the so-so bands on the main stage.
The rest of the performances I saw are worth talking about in greater detail:
The Violet Burning
Despite a misprint in the schedule announcing them as the decidedly hardcore sounding “Violent Burning,” I recognized them as a band a friend has plugged incessantly. So I decided I better catch the show. I dragged a few skeptical teens along, and despite our fears at seeing three guitar players and rock stars decked out in matching black shirts and dyed black hair the show rocked. One of the teens compared them to Smashing Pumpkins or Zwan, but I don’t know Billy Corgan’s music well enough to make comparisons. I’d say it was hard rock with lots of atmospheric guitars and deeply introspective lyrics. We missed the middle portion of the show, but caught both ends. I ended up grabbing a Violet Burning CD (at full price, despite the lead singer saying you could pay whatever you could afford and feel free to burn a copy for your friends), which on two casual listens sounds a bit softer than the blistering live show. But a worthy buy.
This was a post-lunch, hey-why-not show, which was pretty decent. I recognized a few of the songs from my casual listening of Sanctus Real’s sophomore album, though I didn’t know them well enough to really get into the show. They did have quite a crowd though.
I can’t believe I actually watched the Weird Al of Christian music, but a surprising number of the teens wanted to see the show so I went along. Yes, ApologetiX takes popular secular songs and writes Christian words for them. I can’t think of anything more lame (well, a few of the t-shirts I saw this weekend might qualify). Yet the kids loved it. Those crazy teens.
The Supertones marked the beginning of my return to youth, and quite possibly the highlight of my Sonshine experience. I saw the show from well into the crowd with a couple youth group kids, as opposed to my usual position standing in the back (with the arrogant and proud?). While I’m not thrilled with the Supertones’ latest album, they put on a stellar show. They played plenty of old school hits, including “Supertones Strike Back,” “Little Man,” “Unite,” and from their debut album, “Pressing On” (that’s what Matt Morginsky called it, though the liner notes call it “O.C. Supertones”). I threw my hands in the air, screamed the words, and jumped around with all the youngins (though I only watched the crowd surfers). These were the songs I loved in high school and it was so fun to sing ’em again.
The youth group kids plunged into the crowd and snaked their way to the front for Relient K, which was a bit much for me. I chose a spot near the back, which was a bit like being alone in the crowd. I don’t know Relient K’s music very well, but it was fun to jump around to. They played a couple new songs from their forthcoming album, “High of 75” and another one I can’t remember the title to. Both had a little bit of a harder edge than their poppier faire, which I definitely enjoyed.
These guys were a hard rock indie band some of the kids had discovered last year. I went along to check them out, but a mosh pit erupted on top of me at the first note. Since I was wearing sandals I was not eager to be a part of that experience so I quickly backed up. Security guards quickly converged to contain the pit and make sure no one got trampled, but they didn’t put a stop to it (crowd surfing, however, was a big no-no). The many bodies slamming into one another proved to be a major distraction and I spent more time making sure my youth group kids weren’t being trampled than actually watching the Roosevelts. They were decent, but not cool enough to overcome the body slamming directly in front of me.
The last performance on Friday and definitely the most-anticipated band among our youth group was Audio Adrenaline. This really surprises me since half of Audio A’s good songs came out when I was in high school (if not middle school for their biggest hit, “Big House”). I’ve always had the impression of Audio Adrenaline as merely a youth group band. They play for the Christian kids and that’s good enough. They’re not going to be a mainstream crossover success, but they’ll make decent rock for the Christian kids. While that may have been true five years ago, I think that’s beginning to change.
The show was pretty cool, with plenty of old hits including “Big House,” “We’re a Band,” and several from the Underdog era which I still recognized (though nothing from the Bloom or Some Kinda Zombie albums). Lead singer Mark Stuart’s voice has never been that great, but it was especially rough at this show. Twice he disappeared and Tyler Burkum took over lead vocals for “Ocean Floor” and “Leave the 99,” both of which were written by Burkum and I’m guessing he usually sings. All of which makes me wonder whether or not Audio A is beginning a slow and eventual transition away from Mark Stuart. I have to say that Burkum is a stellar guitar player. The minute and a half intro to “We’re a Band” was absolutely blistering, way better than the recorded live version. I think Burkum definitely helps dispel the youth group band image (I suppose their recent Grammy helps as well).
The other cool thing about Audio A were the enormous AA logos, which were designed by Tyler’s brothers, a graphic design duo known as Burkom.
The first band worth checking out on Saturday was Barlow Girl, though I had pretty low expectations. If you haven’t heard the story, the Barlow girls are three sisters who inspired the Superchick song “Barlow Girl.” Of course being an inspiration for a song is reason enough to justify a record deal, so out comes a Barlow Girl album.
But surprisingly, these girls can rock. They’ve got a punk rock sound with a bit of Avril Lavigne in there (though I imagine the album is thoroughly polished). I’ve always thought there should be more female rock bands.
Again I dragged a few youth group kids along to see Duvall, an impressive emo-ish outfit from Chicago. What they lacked in stage presence they made up for in amazing guitar work. Despite the sleepy, early afternoon time slot, the kids seemed to enjoy it and one even bought a CD.
Despite being a youth group favorite, few were motivated to leave the shade of the tent and check out Superchick at the main stage. I don’t blame them. Superchick’s live shows have been lacking, and from our vantage inside the tent this show was no different.
Yet another trip down high school lane, the Insyderz definitely rivaled the Supertones for best show. Skanking erupted from the first song, sending up huge clouds of dust. I joined in along with the half-dozen youth group kids who were with me, and it was a blast. Lead singer Joe Yerke still can’t sing worth a darn, but he’s funnier than I remember. He kept referring to the stage as the “Superchick autograph line stage” and giving props to all the autograph seekers who had to wait so long they endured the entire set. “Jigsaw” was the only real old school song they played (I won’t count “The Hunted” since “Sacrifice” was such a cooler hard core song), though at the end of the set they launched into several Skalleluia favorites, including “You Are My All in All” and “Awesome God.” Screaming out these praise songs is something I loved in high school and it was amazing to do it again under the blue sky with a bunch of teenagers. The show ended with everyone thoroughly coated in dust and completely exhausted.
The dinosaurs of Christian rock wrapped up my flashback weekend, though they weren’t as enjoyable as any of the other time warps. My love of Petra was really a middle school love affair and died shortly after I started high school. I never saw them live until 1998 when I was in college, and that experience was a time warp in itself. Part of the disappointment is the complete cheese that is John Schlitt. The guy’s put on a bit of weight and his nonstop hand motioning is completely laughable. It didn’t help that founding member Bob Hartman is back in the band. A grey-bearded guitar player is definitely a bad sign. They played plenty of old songs, including “He Came, He Saw, He Conquered,” “Creed,” “Beyond Belief,” “It is Finished,” “This Means War,” “Judas’ Kiss,” “Sight Unseen” and a few others, but those suffered the same fate as their new material: the same crushing guitar. Petra’s return to their rock roots made for a lame sound, and applying that same sound to 30 years worth of material is a big mistake. Most songs lost their originality and power, but none more so than the best Petra song ever, “Beyond Belief.” It didn’t help that the new drummer kept launching his sticks into the air and trying to catch them, something he failed at no less than five times.
At the end of the show Bob Hartman came out and gave a 20 minute altar call, which seemed completely excessive and unnecessary. Both Friday and Saturday nights featured speakers with altar calls, which seems odd enough at a Christian music festival (I’ll concede that people are saved at these events, but it’s really an odd experience to watch the overly emotional plea to the choir).
To top it all off, Hartman was sporting a Petra t-shirt.
Jars of Clay
I didn’t actually watch Jars of Clay since I’ve seen enough of their live show to not be impressed. But I did bust out my yo-yo and go nuts in the grassy space opened up after a few tents vacated. I haven’t done that in a long time, and it felt good. Most of the youth group kids hadn’t seen me yo-yo before (definitely not like this) and they were pretty amazed. It reminded me of my performing days and the confliction I feel about showing off.
But the final highlight of the weekend had to be the unofficial bumper sticker table that was set up Thursday night and disappeared the rest of the week. They were all inflammatory sayings that would really serve to insult than turn anyone to God. The sayings included things like “Christian Bashing – The Only Acceptable Form of Hate left in America,” “Abstinence Makes the Heart grow fonder,” “When schools had Prayer & Bible – they had no drugs,” “How Sad – Kids run wild & Dogs go to Obedience School” and the absolute best, “Hey Teens! Self Control Beats Birth Control!”
That last one is my new youth group motto.