Winter Jam brings together contemporary Christian acts

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer

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Sidewalk Prophets will be at the Winter Jam concert at The Wolstein Center.
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Way back in the last century (circa 1995), Eddie Carswell, singer/songwriter of veteran Christian pop group Newsong, and some behind-the-scenes folks dreamt up the January Jam, an annual tour featuring the hottest acts in contemporary Christian music. Carswell wanted to bring together and display the diversity of the genre.

The tour was successful right out of the proverbial gate, and five years later, the name changed to the Winter Jam Tour Spectacular or simply Winter Jam. Its success has been due in part to the tour’s structure, which is set up to make the concert family-friendly. The shows require no tickets, instead charging fans a very reasonable $10 at the door, allowing entire families to enjoy the music and the message without breaking the bank (at least until you hit the concession stands and merch tables).

Across nearly two decades, Winter Jam has played host to and helped launch the careers of a wide variety of stars of the genre, such as Canton’s own Relient K, Steven Curtis Chapman and rockers Skillet and Third Day.

In addition to the music, Winter Jam often has speakers and/or comedians who spread the Word, and frequently provides a platform for nonprofit organizations. In 2011, it was declared the No. 1 tour in the world for the first quarter, beating out pop stars including Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Bon Jovi. The 2012 version sold out 32 of its 47 dates and performed in front of more than half a million fans.

For the 18th annual iteration of the Winter Jam Tour Spectacular, hosts Newsong corralled another eclectic lineup showing the range of contemporary Christian music. Here is a primer on the artists performing and speaking at Winter Jam 2013:

TobyMac

Also known as Kevin McKeehan, Mac was among Christian music’s first successful rappers as part of the legendary trio DC Talk, along with Michael Tait and Kevin Max. The band went on indefinite hiatus in 2000, and Mac was the last of the trio to start his solo career with his 2001 debut Momentum.

The 48-year-old, 25-year veteran has sold more than 11 million records, 3 million as a solo artist, and collected five Grammys. Mac’s most recent album, Eye On It, released in late summer 2012, was his third Top 10 album and the first contemporary Christian album to top the Billboard 200 since 1997 (LeAnn Rimes’ You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs).

On the album, the married father of five, who counts reggae artist Bob Marley among his songwriting inspirations, covers plenty of stylistic ground with big dance-pop songs (Unstoppable), pop-rock (Thankful for You), breezy hip-hop (Made for Me, about courting his wife, Amanda) and even some four-on-the-floor dance rock (the title track). Mac believes that Christian and secular music can exist together in listener’s ears and hearts.

Newsong

The veteran act, tour founders and official hosts of the Winter Jam has been musically ministering for more than 30 years and has recorded 18 albums to date.

Founding members are Eddie Carswell (singer/songwriter) and Billy Goodwin (lead vocals, guitar), along with Russ Lee (lead vocals, guitar, songwriting), Matt Butler (lead vocals, keys, cello, songwriting), Jack Pumphrey (drums, vocals), Mark Clay (bass), and Rico Thomas (guitar).

Among the group’s 20 No. 1 songs is The Christmas Shoes, written by Carswell and former member Leonard Ahlstrom. The heartstring-tugging song, about a young boy desperately trying to get money to buy his dying mother some shoes for Christmas, has become an oft-covered contemporary holiday classic and spawned a television movie.

The group’s most recent album is Swallow the Ocean, released in February.

Red

The Christian nu-metal quartet was formed in 2004 by twin brothers Anthony and Randy Armstrong, who play guitar and bass respectively, and singer Michael Barnes. Current drummer Joe Rickard rounds out the Nashville-based quartet whose active rock/metal sound and lyrics aren’t always explicitly spiritual, though usually uplifting and redemptive.

That has made the band an easy candidate for crossover success, as proved by their most recent album, Release the Panic, which debuted at the No. 7 spot on the Billboard 200 last month. The band also frequently tours with secular hard rock and metal acts including Papa Roach, Buckcherry and Staind.

Sidewalk Prophets

Another Nashville-based band, the Prophets have been around for a decade. Singer David Frey, guitarist Ben McDonald, bassist Cal Joslin, drummer Justin Nace and lead guitarist Shaun Tomczak released their second album Live Like That last spring. It’s a radio-friendly Christian pop record with big Coldplay-style arena rockers such as the title track, bouncy toe-tappers such as Love, Love, Love, and big worship ballads such as Help Me Find It.

Jamie Grace

This 21-year-old singer/songwriter from Atlanta was discovered by TobyMac, and the music on her 2012 debut album One Song At A Time, including Hold Me which features TobyMac, resembles a Christian version of sunny popsters such as Colbie Callait. Grace, who suffers from and speaks about Tourette’s syndrome, uses a light touch when delivering the message, keeping the lyrics of her songs upbeat, positive and thankful.

Matthew West

A contemporary Christian pop-rock singer/songwriter who found his path after not getting the baseball scholarship he hoped would propel him to play for his favorite team, the Chicago Cubs. He decided to pick up a guitar and began writing songs about faith, hope and God’s grace.

The 35-year-old father of two is a seven-time GMA Dove Award nominee and one-time winner. He has released five collections of anthemic pop tunes since his 2003 debut Happy, including 2012’s critically hailed Into the Light, a concept album that saw West write 11 songs based on life stories submitted by more than 10,000 of his fans from around the globe. The album’s lead single, Forgiveness, was inspired by fan Renee Napier, whose daughter was killed by a drunken driver on Mother’s Day weekend 2001, and tells how she forgave the driver and even petitioned for his early release after he served 11 years of his sentence.

Royal Tailor

The up-and-coming quartet features lead singer Tauren Wells, guitarist/vocalist DJ Cox, bassist/vocalist Blake Hubbard and drummer Jarrod Ingram. Their lone album, the Grammy-nominated Black & White, revels in the de rigueur soul-pop sound of artists such as Bruno Mars and recent Maroon 5.

The group formed during college and spent a year in Illinois mentoring and teaching youths how to play instruments and lead student ministries. According to Wells, the band’s message, typified by the funky tune Make a Move, is about inspiring today’s kids to believe in themselves and their faith, and to find a way to go out and change the world.

Also onstage

In addition to the main acts, there will also be an appearance from speaker and youth communicator Nick Hall, as well as a Youth Music Vault Pre-Jam Party, featuring former American Idol contestant turned Christian singer/songwriter Jason Castro, the young brotherly trio OBB (Oswald Brothers Band) and dance-electronic pop duo Capital Kings, whose self-titled debut album was released in January.

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmxabram.


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