Concert Review: Winter Jam 2013 at Philips Arena in Atlanta

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Praise and worship were the order of the day at Atlanta’s Philips Arena when Winter Jam 2013 stopped by Sunday night. Would you expect anything less from Christian music’s largest annual tour? The 10 artist event easily sold out the 21,000 seat arena even though it did so in a rather unconventional way. No advanced tickets were sold. The entire arena was general admission seating and handing over a $10 bill at the door was your invitation to scavenge up a seat. As the crowd awaited the doors to open at 4:30pm, the line wrapped down the sidewalk and around the curve of the CNN Center. The army of Christian music lovers weren’t deterred by the rain. The masses were comprised of youth groups, smiling families and throngs of good hearted souls queuing up for an evening of fellowship, faith and music.

With this many bands jammed into an evening, the event organizers couldn’t afford to waste any time. As the crowd slowly milled in, Capital Kings performed a handful of songs at a small stage setup at the back of the arena floor. Handful being the key word here. The early bands (OBB, Jason Castro, Royal Tailor) were only afforded 3 to 5 songs a piece. It was just enough to give you a taste of their sound before they were yanked off the stage to shuffle the instruments around for the next band. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of squeezing 10 bands into the span of 5 hours.

The Georgia influence in the line-up was inescapable. OBB, or the Oswald Brothers Band, hailed from Norcross in suburban Atlanta. Jamie Grace is a proud Atlanta girl. NewSong’s roots lie just south of us in Valdosta. Winter Jam turned into a bit of a homecoming for a large chunk of the touring cast as their family, friends and local fans showed up in force to support them.

Although they played fairly early in the evening, NewSong broke from the short set mold and fleshed out a longer run. The group has stood the test of time, forming in 1981, and they are the founders of Winter Jam. They brought this music tour to life in 1995, and over the years they’ve hosted some of Christian music’s biggest names. NewSong was promoting their latest album Swallow the Ocean that releases February 26. They drew a few tracks from it as well as digging into their back catalog to give us classic cuts like “Arise.”

Various NewSong members served as MCs throughout the evening. Between artists, as the roadies unraveled the equipment on stage, Eddie Carswell and Russ Lee would tell the story of ministries like World Vision and Teen Missions International, explaining why they were important. That is what made this event different and a bit special. They were looking to promote charity and goodwill to those less fortunate. Be it a starving child in Africa or someone looking to escape the chains of drug addiction, Winter Jam was here to highlight these causes in order to help make a difference and push for change.

With that said, this is definitely a Christian-based event. Prayer comes often; hands are in the air praising Jesus. Speakers like Nick Hall are on hand to minister to the crowd. There is no mistaking the reason you are here. The music, the sponsors, the speakers are all conduits for God’s work. In fact, they even pass around the offering bucket at the end of the evening. As I’m sure you’re aware, $10 a head doesn’t cover the cost to put on an event of this magnitude. They are relying on your charity to help out their cause of spreading the word through music.

Let’s get back to the music shall we. I wasn’t aware Jason Castro had planted his flag in Christian music. The “American Idol” alum’s pop flavor wasn’t very distinctive. He didn’t really make an impact until he came back onstage later in the evening to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I’m not sure he has the musical chops to make it long term.

Royal Tailor was a bit of change of pace. The pop, hip-hop group seemed to channel Bruno Mars in their execution. Lead vocalist Tauren Wells taps into Michael Jackson’s style and moves. The group has an interesting groove, and they bring strong crossover appeal for top 40 radio.

Jamie Grace has a fun sound. She definitely has a bit of Colbie Caillat lingering in her voice. She had a brief set, but showed a lot of promise for a 21-year-old. TobyMac did make a special appearance, flying out from the wings to help her out with their duet, “Hold Me,” from her album One Song at a Time. Keep an eye on Grace. In the years to come, she could be a force on the Christian music scene.

I’m sure most would vehemently disagree with me, but in my mind Red put on the performance of the evening. In the midst of this mellow pop vibe was throw the metal heads of Red. It was like someone did a cannonball into a water aerobics class as they came dressed in Slipknot jumpsuits and had the stage breathing fire that would put Slayer to shame. These guys ripped into the guitars, grabbed the video camera, and generally reveled in the dancing flames. Whoever said Christian music can’t rock clearly hasn’t heard Red. The most comical part of the whole thing was watching the audience’s reaction. Most of the families were completely taken aback by this spectacle unfolding on stage. Rock on gentlemen, and you may want to look at Mayhem Festival for a crowd that may be more appreciative of your craft.

Matthew West’s set employed an interesting format. He’d take a moment to introduce each song. He told the story of the song “Forgiveness” from a mother who lost her daughter in a drunk driving accident. Tugging on the heart strings really brought the song home. West is touring on his 2012 release Into the Light. He played several tracks off the effort, and he injected a lot of humor into the set as well. West is a strong performer and really knows how to interact with his audience.

Finally, TobyMac closed the evening. The Grammy winning artist had his own DJ perched atop a tower at the rear of the stage. He raced about the stage featuring tracks off his most recent release “Eye On It.” He has a catchy, top 40 pop vibe that really draws the audience in. Christian music’s answer to Katy Perry, perhaps? TobyMac is quite the performer. He has a magnetic stage presence and easily showed why he is the headliner of the event.

In all, Winter Jam 2013 was a great event. The tour features some of Christian music’s most promising young voices. Their melding compelling music with worthy causes is highly commendable. It makes for a one-of-a-kind evening. I’ll be the first to say that this isn’t for everyone, but for their core audience, Winter Jam is the place to be.

Order of Band Performances:
Capital Kings | OBB | Jason Castro | Royal Tailor | Newsong | Jamie Grace | Sidewalk Prophets | Red | Matthew West | TobyMac

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