Monday, March 12, 2018

**CONCERT REVIEW** WinterJam 2018 featuring SKILLET, BUILDING 429, KB, etc.

WinterJam is considered by many to be the premier Christian music tour package going right now, although there are others such as CityRockFest that may argue that point.  What WinterJam does do better than any other package is bring together artists of varying genres, which, in turn, brings in a tremendous cross-section of fans...and they do it at the bargain basement price of just $15 for general admission (there are package upgrades available at higher prices), which is honestly quite a steal.

My family and I made the six hour trek to Wichita, KS to attend WinterJam18 so that our kids could experience Skillet live.  Not only was Wichita one of the two closest locations for us to attend, it worked out perfectly for the boys' Spring Break, so it was a no-brainer.

This year's festival, as I mentioned, featured Skillet as the headliner, but also features a number of other top Christian artists from varying styles.  Building 429 is a popular pop-rock act, KB is a well-known Christian rap artist, Kari Jobe is a rapidly growing name in the Praise & Worship genre, Jordan Feliz is another top pop artist, and Newsong brings more of a classic rock presence to their show.  This year, the comedian John Crist was also given stage time as well as serving in some early emcee roles.  In addition, there were also three new artists that were featured on the "Pre-Jam Party", each getting to perform three songs apiece, but I honestly can't remember their names at this point in time.  All three were fairly straight forward pop in nature, and not really in my wheelhouse, but the kids seemed to enjoy them, which was kind of the point of the trip.

The main show opened up with Jordan Feliz, who is a well-established pop-rock artist.  Admittedly, other than hearing his name before, I don't know a ton about the man, but he was very well received by the younger audience members, especially when he performed an edgier dance-pop number called "Can I Get A Witness", as well as his biggest hits, "Beloved", "Never Too Far Gone", and his number one Christian airplay track, "The River".  The four song set from Feliz was solid and energetic, with some confetti-and-streamer cannons pumping up the crowd, which is always a good start to a show.  Overall, I have to say I came away impressed with Feliz, even though his is not a style I would typically listen to around the house or in the car.

Next up was the more 70s/80s styled classic rock mixed with some praise and worship of NewSong.  Mixing a bit of Motown with their Boston/Foreigner/Kansas sound, these guys were incredibly loud, featured an excellent light show, and had a phenomenal guitar player.  "I Am A Christian" was well-received by the majority of the crowd, so apparently I was one of the few in our section that didn't know the track.  The same can be said of the set's closer, which I believe was called, "Arise My Love".  Again, not necessarily someone I would have gone to see exclusively, but they were entertaining and my kids were impressed with their performance, especially the guitarist, which both my wife and I described as "surprising".

Rap artist, KB, was up next, and was one of the two artists my sons were most interested in seeing.  Being from Central Nebraska...and with my wife and I generally not rap fans...none of us has ever gone to an actual rap concert, so we didn't really know what to expect from KB.  What we got was another high energy blast of about 25 minutes, or so, with an insanely infectious song called "I Believe" in the mix that had my 10 year old buying him the CD as soon as the show was over!  "Not
Today Satan" was one of the newer songs he included, and something called "Church Clap" was one that I think only my family didn't know!  While I am most definitely not a rap fan, I will be honest in saying that it was easy to get caught up in the energy of the show, and his live drummer was very talented.  KB himself was also a fan favorite, and I saw him standing at his booth for a LONG time after the entire concert had ended, taking pictures (for free, no less!) with an endless line of fans.  Had my boys not been so hungry, I'm sure we would have been in that same line.

Kari Jobe and her husband were up next and they delivered a very typical, adult contemporary praise and worship show.  The tiny Jobe has a big voice, but my son pointed out what a lot of people I've talked to about Christian music have echoed: the songs are so long and repetitive that they all start to sound the same.  The tempo is pretty much always the same and the singing, especially among the women, is impossibly high a lot of the time, and, to be honest, it kind of starts to grate on me after a time.  Those who know me know that I am an unapologetic Christian and fan of Christian music, but the majority of praise and worship music just does nothing for me.  Again, I am not taking away from her vocal talent, as that is extremely obvious.  I do feel that it did a disservice to KB and Building 429 to have Jobe sandwiched in between their shows (along with the comedy of John Crist, as well), as KB and Building 429 are both high energy, high volume shows that had the kids up and moving and singing along, with Jobe's set serving as kind of a shut-off switch in the middle (and while funny, Crist didn't help the energy level, either).  If anyone cared for my input, I would have put Jobe after NewSong, followed by Crist, and then let KB, Building 429, and of course, Skillet, close things out.

Building 429 got to play a little bit longer set, going 6 songs into their catalog, which was nice to hear.  Of course they opened with their huge hit, "Impossible" to start things off and get everyone up and moving again.  At times, when they are a bit dancey with their music, I would compare these guys to Maroon 5 in a way, and when they get a bit rockier, bits of Lifehouse and the edgier music of the current version of Newsboys start to creep into their music.  Lead singer, Jason Roy, is incredibly charismatic and easily brings his audience along with him, and guitar player, Jesse Rivera, is a rocker-in-waiting that is just looking for a place to escape and really cut loose.  Their bass player and drummer are very solid, as well, and the band has a polished, practiced routine that is definitely entertaining and fun for the crowd.  My 10 year old said that they were his third favorite act of the night (behind Skillet and KB), and both kids pointed to  the catchy rocker, "Bonfire", as one of the best songs of any of the bands, which I would agree with.    Other songs in the set include the mid-tempo AC of "Press On", the clap-stomp of "We Won't Be Shaken", "This Place", and the anthemic praise and worship of "Where I Belong", which closed out the set.

To say the excitement was palpable is usually a tired cliche, but in this case, there was a definite buzz of excitement as Skillet's set was being moved into place.  My six year old screamed at me (on more than one occasion), "Skillet is next!!!", which seemed to be a sentiment of nearly everyone around me.  I would say about 10-15% of the crowd had left by this point, either not interested in the loud hard rock show that was about to explode to life, or simply wearing out after more than 5 hours of music up to that point (doors opened at 4:30, with the first band taking the stage at around 6).  The lights went down and the sound came up as what appeared to be lead vocalist, Jon Cooper, came out to the catwalk portion of the stage and started singing, "I feel, I feel...invincible".  He then dropped to one knee, still in the semi-dark.  Then, about 15 seconds later, the voice echoed through the arena again, but the Cooper in front of us didn't move, but a new Cooper had popped up on an island stage in the middle of the arena about 50 feet behind us.  He repeated the same intro, did the same head-banging dance, then dropped into the same one-kneed pose.  Catwalk Cooper started up again, repeating the intro for a third time, before a loud explosion went off and the real Jon Cooper began to descend from the ceiling as he sang the first lines of the song, "Feel Invincible".  Once he finally arrived on the floor, Cooper joined his wife, purple-tressed rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Korey Cooper, lead guitarist, Seth Morrison, the tiny-yet-beastly drummer/backing vocalist, Jen Ledger, and touring cellist, Tate Olsen, as they tore through an all-too-short eight song set of most of the band's biggest hits.  Cooper donned his bass for the next song, the wildly popular rocker, "Whispers In The Dark", which had anyone that was still sitting down exploding out of their seat.  Cooper shed his bass and equipped each arm with what can only be described as smoke cannons as the band tore into "Sick Of It".  Each time the chorus would hit, Cooper would douse the front few rows with belches of smoke from the cannons, much to the delight of everyone present.  Things slowed down at this point as the band's crossover hit, "Lions" was up next, and it was evident that Cooper was having some vocal issues as his voice was rather hoarse in places on this softer, more sung-than-shouted song.  The band ramped back up for "Awake & Alive", which was followed by Cooper and co-vocalist, Ledger, entering a pair of what can only be described as human-powered chariots, as they circled the arena, shaking hands with fans along the railing of the lower deck of the arena as they sang.  (It should be noted that the drum tech who fills in for Ledger on this part of the show is a phenomenal drummer in his own right.)  Once Cooper and Ledger returned, the band broke into the hard rocking, "Hero",
before all the band made their way to the island stage as Cooper gave his personal testimony about his mother dying of cancer and, despite his life-long faith, how he questioned how God could allow this to happen to his mom and the pain and anger it caused him and his family.  The band then performed an acoustic version of the big ballad, "Stars", before everyone made their way back to the stage, walking through the crowd as they did so.
My boys were both very excited to get high-fives from Cooper as he walked right past us (my youngest is in the yellow Pokemon jacket, my oldest is the head in the middle of the picture; you can just see the bill of my baseball cap at the far right...).  Once everyone was back in place, the band ended the show with the wildly popular, "Monster", with Jason Roy from Building 429 coming out to help Cooper on lead vocals.  I'm wondering if this wasn't due in part to the vocal issues that Cooper seemed to be experiencing throughout the set, and if it isn't also the main reason why the band ended their set here, rather than with "The Resistance", which has been the closing song for most of the rest of the tour, and was the song the band closed with when my wife and I saw them almost exactly a year ago.  (The other possible explanation could be the time of the show, as it was now approaching midnight, and I'm not sure what the arena's curfew is.)  The show was definitely a visual spectacle, as well as a musical one, with pyrotechnics, the piston stands for the guitars (and at one point, the cellist) raising and lowering the performers, and of course Coopers smoke cannons and his descent from the rafters to start the show.  Obviously, I would have loved to have heard a few more songs included here, but overall, the band appeared to leave everything they had out there on the stage by the time the show drew to a close.

This was our family's first Winter Jam, but I doubt it will be our last, as we had a great time overall.  The band lineup changes annually, although both Skillet and Building 429 are Jam veterans, now, with each having been on at least three tours now.  The tour will be drawing to a close very shortly, so if it comes anywhere near you, I would strongly encourage you to attend, even if it's just to see Skillet for the insanely cheap price of $15!

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