An indepth review of Europe's largest Christian music event

On the 23rd and 24th May journalists Tony Cummings, Helen Whitall, Ian Webber, Andy Shaw, Peter Hicks and Maxine Cummings and photo journalist Ian Homer went to Wiston House, West Sussex to attend the Big Church Day Out. Here is what they heard, saw, thought and experienced.


SATURDAY

10.23am (Tony Cummings)
Wiston House, here we are! I've never felt such anticipation in attending any Christian event. As Maxine and I climb out of the car, after a five-hour drive, I start pondering about the hundreds of Christian events I've attended - from big arts festivals to sparsely attended church hall concerts, from evangelistic crusades to black church conventions, from expository preaching events to heavy metal gigs. But I've never been as excited as this. What I saw and heard at last year's Big Church Day Out has convinced me that BCDO 2015 is going to top everything. The bill of artists for this year's event is stunning causing more than one US insider - used to big American Christian music fests - to suggest that this was the greatest lineup for one event ever assembled. The setting is spectacular too. One glimpse of the sumptuous Wiston House grounds, now attractively bedecked in giant multi-coloured flags, feeds my anticipation. Even the rain which has been threatening to descend is holding off and there are some brief spells of sunshine. As Maxine and I lug our bags to the ticket tent I find I'm humming the Torwalts' "Holy Spirit you are welcome here."

(photo: Maxine Cummings)
(photo: Maxine Cummings)

We are now in the crowds - teenagers and mums, black matrons and leather jacketed bikers, wheelchaired disabled and lads in replica Man U shirts all happily queuing for their tickets. As I do the same I remember what BCDO founder Tim Jupp said about the event when we interviewed him back in 2014. He spoke about "all these different people coming from all sorts of different backgrounds within the Church" and how his heart was for people to "experience the presence of Jesus in a way they're not always used to on a day-to-day basis." I am also pondering two prophetic words I've got stored in my heart. One was given way back in 1995, "Contemporary gospel music is to be a spearhead for revival in Britain." The second was made much more recently. American prophet Dutch Sheets has stated that in the next 12 months what will become a worldwide revival was going to break out somewhere on this troubled globe of ours. With wristbands attached, Maxine and I begin the next part of our journey across the verdant, tent-strewn expanses in search of the Bazaar where two Cross Rhythms volunteers have set up the CR stand. I ponder for the umpteenth time whether these two promises from God and my still growing excitement are in some way connected.

10.32am (Ian Webber)
It has been a while since I've arrived at a camp site and to be greeted by the offer of a bacon sandwich and cup of coffee from the family camped opposite me, whom I've only just met, is a welcome start to the weekend.

11.30am (Tony Cummings)
My friend Rob and his wife Chrissy are already doing a sterling job explaining to people who stop at the stand what Cross Rhythms is all about. They have a limited number of CDs and books to give away and I note that the first two selected by people signing on for the Cross Rhythms mailings are an Abrams Brothers CD (no surprise in that choice) and the UK's much loved Daughters Of Davis (who I hope will get offered Main Stage next year).

Guvna B (photo: Ian Homer)
Guvna B (photo: Ian Homer)

12.10pm (Tony Cummings)
I'm experiencing a great PA with enough bombastic power to rattle teeth as Britain's much loved rapper Guvna B delivers his fiery flows to a Main Stage crowd growing by the minute. This is what a summer festival should all be about and there's even some fitfull spells of sunshine to add to the enjoyment. Our favourite homeboy delivers on-the-money renditions of our favourites from 'Odd 1 Out' and 'Scrapbook II' plus some tasty new tunes from his soon-to-be-released 'Secret World'. Shame I can't stay for the whole set but with one of Cross Rhythms' reviewers having to pull out I've got to dash off before the close to cover some of his schedule, but not before I've seen the graduate-turned-street-poet produce head bobbing, hand swaying delirium front of stage.

London School Of Theology Choir (photo: Ian Homer)
London School Of Theology Choir (photo: Ian Homer)

12:30pm (Ian Homer)
The sun is shining, it's dry for once on a Bank Holiday and several hundred people are seated around tables in the grounds of a stately home. No, it's not some fancy garden party but the kick-off event at the Tearfund Tea Tent. I have to confess that when Longbeard Cummings gave me my journalistic assignments for the weekend I'd felt a certain disappointment. Let's face it, the London School Of Theology Choir doesn't sound like the most exciting musical attraction and I imagined I would be sitting through choral renditions of biblically sound but rather dull hymns. Instead LSOTC turn out to be a gospel choir and one led by Geraldine Latty who as many Cross Rhythms readers will know rose to "fame" (if that's the right word) leading worship at Spring Harvest and Focus Fest. Now, in this quintessential English setting, Geraldine gesticulates to her ensemble of 20 singers (plus a handful of accompanying musicians) as they proceed to give lively renditions of mostly gospel classics starting with "Every Praise Is To Our God". With husband Carey Luce, Geraldine has nurtured LSOTC and clearly they're skilled at working a crowd, even one of polite Brit tea-drinkers. By the second number we're split into sections and given our parts to sing. What good fun it is! We all sing the refrain from "One Day Like This (Throw Those Curtains Wide)" with some substituted ad libbed lyrics for the verses delivered by Geraldine and follow this up with that old Bill Withers favourite "Lean On Me". If we weren't all seated we'd have been dancing too. On a musical note the LSOTC's rhythm section is so tight that you couldn't get a leaf from an Authorised Version between a semi-quaver and the voices. There are even solos on guitar and keys which are measured and polished on the bluesy "In The Morning" led by senior choir member Josh, which then swings straight into Andrae Crouch's "Soon And Very Soon". Then it's all over with us gasping for more... and another tea.

12.40pm (Tony Cummings)
There have been major changes in the layout of BCDO. Last year the secondary stage had been called the UCB Stage. This year it is called Illuminate Stage. As I sit on a nearby bench waiting for the road crew to finish their check, check, checking and for the MC/presenter to come to the mic, I wonder who will have been designated the unenviable task of welcoming the "crowd" of 20 or so waiting for the show to begin while an endless stream of BCDO punters walk past. The young lady who talks to us is called Sarah K and has the same kind of over-excited persona that pop presenters often adopt when talking to an audience. The girl proceeds to tell the crowd - now up to 25 - about Illuminate. Maybe it's nerves, maybe it's the bass-heavy PA, but few of her words carry to my bench. There's something about other events and festivals though one phrase, "one of our acts is LZ7," making me guess that Illuminate is something to do with Lindz West.

Abrams Brothers (photo: Ian Homer)
Abrams Brothers (photo: Ian Homer)

1:10pm (Ian Homer)
Fourth generation Canadian musicians John and James Abrams and their band have been writing, recording and performing their genre-surfing bluegrass/folk/country/Celtic "newgrass" for years now and after last year's small stage appearance they're already well on the way to becoming BCDO favourites as indicated by the ever-growing audience who've gathered to see the Abrams Brothers at Main Stage. Opening up with the lively "The Tin Man" with its telling refrain "How can I love without a heart?" they follow through with "Spend Your Life With Me" from their new EP. Love in all its varieties is the vein running through this fraternal duo's repertoire whether it's expressed in their own songs or the trad songs they also sing. In a bid to really get the crowd moving they next play what sounds like a Scots reel but with their Canadian spin on it. Then John explains that the brothers have just returned from Jerusalem and it was there where they wrote the next piece "The Walls Of Jericho" - a real blast of a song with James playing a mean banjo intro that sounds a lot like Mumford & Sons on top form. John explains that "The Walls Of Jericho" is as much about the walls we build around our hearts as it is about ancient physical ones - both of which, of course, God can break down if only we let him. Their newgrass makeover of Coldplay's anthem "When I Ruled The World" proves a big hit with the burgeoning audience. Despite the Abrams having a musical approach some might consider "niche" the crowd, by now eight or nine thousand, have clearly taken the brothers to their hearts and are enjoying the rocked-up country rhythms and peerless close harmonies, the latter showcased in one of their new songs, "Walk Above The Clouds". It's a ballad amongst the up-tempo offerings with a great fiddle intro by brother James. All in all it is a great set.

1.11pm (Tony Cummings)
It was always going to be a hard gig - a small stage, a small crowd while hundreds more move past on the way to the porta loos, Big Church Kids work or the tea tent. Matt Hill isn't really connecting with me and the 30 or so standing or sitting, listening, let alone those milling past. Song after rock song from Matt's debut 'Masterpiece' blast out of the Illuminate Stage speakers but even a tasty guitar riff here or a funky rhythm there do nothing to still the chattering crowd noise and the bass-heavy mix makes it difficult for me to hear a lot of Matt's lyrics. Surprisingly, considering the fact that this Manchester muso spent five years as a worship leader with the renowned !Audacious church, there's nothing communicated from the stage that Matt is worshipping or interested in encouraging others to do so. Rather, the Matt Hill band come across like a slick and well-rehearsed rock band running through their set. Fair enough I suppose but a little surprising. On the plus side Matt is a top rate guitarist and gutsy singer but despite "Million Words" sounding like something off a Stereophonics album and some throbbing rock funk on "After The Rain" it's only when Matt sings Charlie Peacock's "Walk In The Light" that I find my interest fully returning. Maybe it's the brilliance of Peacock's words that makes me make a fresh effort to catch the words of the rest of Matt's songs. Sadly when I can hear them they are clich├ęd ("It's Jesus love that set me free") or theologically untrue ("We are sheltered from all harm").

1.45pm (Maxine Cummings)
Rebirth Dance are an urban dance company who fuse together hip-hop, funk and dance theatre. They hold summer schools and perform all over the country at mainstream events and now they're here doing their thing at the Illuminate stage. Varying in ages from children to young adults, they dance in unison and individually to the first song, "Reach", which contains a sample of Martin Luther King, "We've got some difficult days ahead," booming out as Rebirth Dance show off their interpretative moves. A rap about overcoming stereotypes and doing "the unexpected" follows. The emcee D7 asks for eight volunteers from the audience "who can dance" to come up on stage and have a go at "expressing themselves." Some of those who respond are little kids who confidently go through their moves, much to the pleasure of the crowd. Finally, Sarah, a spoken word artist, brings a piece called "The Dare". Her rapid-fire delivery holds our attention throughout, ending with the line "I dare you to follow the one who died."

1.45pm (Tony Cummings)
I'm walking with Craig - a friend and BCDO steward - down the gradient from the Tearfund Tea Tent. We momentarily stop to gaze at something you don't see every day - a young lady dressed as an exotic nine foot plant.

2.20pm (Andy Shaw)
The Tearfund Tea Tent is offering a rare opportunity to see Martin Smith performing an acoustic set with just the man, his guitar and the stunning backing vocals of Sarah Bird. A large crowd is gathered on the lawn in eager anticipation and from the very first note of opener "History Maker" to the closing refrain of "Obsession" they are totally hooked, many singing along. The set list has something for everyone with a rare airing of tracks from the Cutting Edge tapes for the older fans including "Find Me In The River", "Thank You For Saving Me" and the first song ever written for Delirious?, "Lord You Have My Heart". There are also songs taken from the 'God's Great Dance Floor' series with intimate renditions of "Great Is Your Faithfulness" and "Catch Every Teardrop". There is an opportunity to hear Sarah Bird take the lead on a song taken from the 'Bright City' project, "I Will Rest". Martin is clearly in his element and enjoying every moment as much as the throng in front of him. We would all have been happy if the veteran songsmith had continued with his haunting songs of divine love for another hour.