What surprised me the most about Winter Jam was its lack of pretense. As a believer who has grown up around the Christian subculture for most of her life, I know plenty about the legalism, hypocrisy, willful ignorance, and pretension that makes it cringeworthy to others.
That pretense has been especially felt in Christian music. In the past, Christian music laid the foundation for Western music as we know it and even revolutionized music at times, but in recent history, it has tried so hard to be like its culture that it comes across as laughably sensationalized and generic.
That wasn’t the case at Winter Jam, though. While I was there standing on the ground floor with my friends, I never once felt like the bands on stage were trying to be cool and that is amazing.
I started standing in line with my friends around 3 pm. The doors opened at 6 pm, so we were standing outside of James Brown Arena for about 3 hours. Not long after we arrived, Dan Bremnes, one of the musicians lined up to perform, came outside to play the guitar for the people in line. After playing and selling some CD’s, Bremnes went back inside to prepare.
Besides that, there was no other entertainment besides the people selling drinks and the different groups passing out fliers for local restaurants, different events, and even the Christian Vegetarian Association. Nevertheless, I was never bored. I enjoyed talking to my friends.
The only people let in early were the ones with the special passes. Everyone else was outside in the oddly cool weather for spring in Augusta. Once the doors were opened, people trickled in and dropped their required $15 cash donation into a white bucket upon entrance. After purchasing some merch, my friends and I sat down at the floor seats that were fortunately still open.
After a brief pre-show featuring Dan Bremnes, Mallory Hope, and Westover, Jordan Feliz started the show followed by the band Hollyn. These bands were good and performed passionately, but they sounded more like the bands I’m used to hearing on the Christian radio station I listen to sometimes. Not bad, just generic. I was poised to listen to that all night long.
Everything changed when NewSong came on. When they started performing with their bluegrass-country style music, I knew I was in for a treat. I had never heard of this band, but they stood out in a good way. They were all middle-aged men performing with the energy of 20 somethings. Their music reminded me of old time instrumental gospel music with electric guitars. It was everything good about Southern rock, bluegrass, and country music combined. The singing fit the bill, too. It was no surprise they were nominated for a Grammy.
The band and their music blew me away, not just because of how good the music was, but honestly, because of how genuine NewSong was. I could tell the band members enjoyed playing and being with each other and not about selling merchandise or appearing cool. That’s how bands are supposed to be, but for some reason, that blew me away.
I can say the same thing about KB’s band, which was an interesting combination of rock, hip-hop, and rap. It was freedom and experimentation in the last place I expected to hear it, and I loved it. Surprisingly, everyone else loved it, too. I swear I have never seen so many white middle-aged adults bouncing to a rap song.
After them was a brief but inspiring sermon from Nick Hall who spoke about the futility of comparing yourself to others among other things.
Then, comedian and YouTuber John Crist did some stand-up. His jokes were refreshing because of how much he made fun of the odd quirks of the Christian subculture. Most of the audience was laughing.
Once he left the stage, Kari Jobe and Building 429 performed. They were alright, but they were completely overshadowed by the arrival of Skillet.
The metal band Skillet, by far, stole the show. While performing their song “Invincible,” they opened spectacularly with fire, loud noises, lights, and their lead singer descending onto the stage in a harness. Even as someone who is mildly familiar with their work, I was surprised at how theatric, energized, and different their performance was. In and of themselves, Skillet defies their genre with metal songs that are more uplifting than most of their counterparts’.
The band received more enthusiastic reception from the fans than the other musicians. They were the band most of the younger audience came to see. I could tell since most of the younger audience members left their chairs to form a mosh pit closer to the stage.
Once they closed their last number, I left the concert with my friends feeling inspired and uplifted. Going in, I should have expected that, but I didn’t.
It honestly came down to my own prejudices. Many years of negative interactions with people in the Christian subculture left me disillusioned and cynical. However, this concert is a sign to me that things are changing in our subculture for the better. Christians are recognizing the legalism and hypocrisy for what it is and are losing their fear of experimenting and expressing themselves in ways that might offend the more conservative.
If Christian music continues in this direction, it just might become revolutionary again. At any rate, it was more than worth the $15 I paid to get in.