Helen Whitall went to BIG CHURCH DAY OUT at Wiston Hall, West Sussex on 26th and 27th May. Here is what she saw and heard.
My first BCDO without Switchfoot. I decided pretty last minute I was going to go, the decision eventually made by the fact that both Martin Smith and Stu G formerly of second-favourite ever band Delirious? would be there, plus another favourite, Verra Cruz, who I'd not managed to catch for many years. The rest of the lineup was largely new to me live, but looked pretty strong too. I have no regrets!
We arrived Saturday morning, pitched the tent in blazing sunshine, picked up a programme, and discovered that Stu G was playing almost immediately, so dashed over to catch his set. And oh wow! As we arrived he launched into Delirious?'s "Bliss", and despite him playing at the very civilised Tearfund Tea Tent, with most of the rest of the crowd sat at tables enjoying cream teas, we ran to the front and danced like it was 1999! Accompanied by a band composed of his brother-in-law, nephew and a friend, he was able to give us the epic, atmospheric rock he's always done best, all smiles and clearly in his element. "Bliss" was followed by the moody solo hit "King Of The Stars", the first time I'd seen this live, and it was stunning. He then talked a bit about his Beatitudes project (he's been exploring both practically and through musical collaborations what the blessings of Jesus mean for us today, resulting in an album, book and film). He said that he had found them to be less a list of targets to strive for, more a set of promises about how "God is on your side at the bottom of life." And he played the opening song of the project, "Oh Blessed", on acoustic guitar, getting the crowd singing the title lyric with him. It sounded lovely. Then switching back to electric we were treated to "In The Middle" from the same project, lyrically powerful and with the kind of heavy riff that Delirious? had been known for. There was a funny moment as he changed guitar and had to tune it himself, quipping as it took him a moment that there was a time he used to have a crew do that for him. But then he was back to full Delirious? mode, treating us to "Kingdom Of Comfort" and "Investigate"! Having missed their final tour, which still pains me deeply, I'd never heard their final album live despite it being my favourite, so finally hearing the title track was very special. And "Investigate" was as epic and soaring as ever, Stu producing a killer solo and reminding me that he is still one of the very best guitarists out there. Wow! What a way to start a beautiful weekend. We purchased his book Words From The Hill, which he signed for us, then headed over to Mainstage.
Canada's Newworldson lit up Mainstage with their tight and funky musicianship and energetic pan-American gospel sound. When we arrived, Crowder's "Soon And Very Soon" was at full throttle, and this was followed by some deep south blues, singer Leroy Emmanuel growling deliciously whilst the bass reverberated. "There Is A Way" followed, with powerful gospel vocals from Joel Parisien. Then the saxophones came out for "Working Man", the bass riff getting the whole crowd dancing and clapping. And Leroy gave us the most mind-blowing spoon solo imaginable, playing with his hands, arms, legs and even face and producing some most delightful cross rhythms - it really had to be seen to be believed! "Salvation Station" again had everyone jumping and clapping and singing along, and Mark Rogers followed that spoon solo with a possibly even more impressive drum solo! He soloed at full force for over a minute; clearly we were not the only ones concerned he might spontaneously combust as Parisien ran over and started fanning him! The solo barely over and the crowd still roaring, he launched straight into a fast paced African type beat for a final song before rapturous applause.
By this point we were melting rapidly under the heat of both the sun and the music, so retreated to the Tearfund Tea Tent again for a cold drink and vain attempt to find some shade in the garden (funnily enough, every shaded blade of grass was fully occupied). We sat on the lawn of Wiston House while Canadian (apart from "Alistair the English bass player," whom they'd borrowed for the weekend) bluegrass band Tim And The Glory Boys thoroughly entertained us. As a seemingly endless queue for ice cream snaked around the cafe tent and past the craft stalls they gave us "Everything That Has Strings" and "Galilee Man", Tim Neufeld showing off his impressive vocal range, and taking a vote on which of them looked the most like Jesus, getting the crowd cheering and laughing. Clearly having a great time, Tim introduced their next song: "This is a song. . . about a river. It's called. . . 'The River'." We got banjo, dramatic pauses, a big "Yeeeehah!", and a lot of laughs. Finally they got "all the shirtless guys" to stand up and dance, finishing with "The kingdom of God is a PARTY!"
Then it was time for Stu G's second Tea Tent set of the day. As he was setting up, Martin Smith came up and chatted with him, smiles and hugs, and he even helped Stu set up the stage. Stu kicked off with Delirious?'s "Sanctify", which sounded huge. There was a funny moment at the end as he had to sing the line "The cloud's getting bigger now"; he paused, looking up at the perfect clear blue sky with a grin on his face, and sang it with a questioning tone! Then he gave us "Inside Outside", a Delirious? song that he'd always taken lead vocal on; it was great to hear this one live. Then we rocked out through "Bliss" and "King Of The Stars" again before having to leave and dash over to the Illuminate stage for Verra Cruz, whose set clashed disastrously with his!
Verra Cruz were LOUD! We arrived as they were pounding out "Soul Collides", guitars screaming and Marc James' vocals soaring. The crowd may have been small but the band definitely were not holding back. From there they went into their latest high energy hit "Violent Sun". They were all hair and smiles, really letting loose, but sadly the music was almost so loud Marc's amazing voice was getting drowned out. They followed with the slide blues masterpiece "Soul On Fire" with Marc's guitar work truly stunning. He then told the story about how someone recently tried to start a fight with him, but that "a gentle word turns away wrath." He said you have to fight the urge to respond to aggression with more of the same. He'd seen the same guy again days later and had said hi and given him a hug, and told him it didn't have to be the end for him, and that he could still turn around and follow the way of love. That appropriately led into "Put The Weapon Down", again with more of his trademark slide blues, and got the crowd singing the chorus refrain. At the end of the song he lifted his old guitar in the air then brandished it as though it was a weapon, "killing a techy" with it, laughing at the irony given what he'd just been singing! They closed too short a set with "The Ballad Of Jimmy James", for which they were joined by Steve Evans from Army Of Bones, who gave us an awesome solo, and a disorientated dragonfly, then Marc went into the crowd and had people sing "Give it up!" along with him. They really looked like they were having fun. We met Marc after their set and I got to tell him 'Emancipation Day' is one of my all-time favourite albums, and he said that though they're finding it hard to fit the music around their lives they're enjoying it even more these days. I hope I don't have so long to wait before seeing them again, it really left me wanting more.
Wandering back to the food court, we were eating burritos when a percussion group rocked up next to us, accompanied by some interpretive flag dancing.
Next we headed over to the Arkyard Airstream stage, where Lily-Jo was lifting the straw-bale-seated crowd with her powerful vocals and positivity, throwing in some sweet high notes on "Good Enough" and "We Were Young". She brought her friend Lauren up on stage to talk about her journey of forgiveness, and how helpful she had found it to write an "anger letter" just between her and God, getting all the hurt out and saying exactly how she felt, then literally drawing a line under it and writing how she would choose to love in spite of it all. They pointed us towards the Lily-Jo Project's mental health support resources. "Show Me" followed; a quiet song that unfortunately couldn't compete with the noise from another loud band at nearby Illuminate, but she got us singing "Woah woah oooah!" Finally she had everyone clapping along to "Unstoppable", with its encouraging message and nice guitar work from her husband.
Following on from Lily-Jo, we stayed at Arkyard for the soft vocals and acoustic guitar of Paul Bell, who opened saying "I'm going to start by delving into the existential nature of good and evil." Well, he did that, singing about how the divide runs "right down the middle of my heart." And then followed up with an oh-so-serious song about biscuits. He had us all cheer our favourite biscuit as he mentioned it in the song, very funny! This was followed with another deep piece, "Even When You're Gone", and then back to the deadpan humour with "Things No-one Knows" (such as where the odd socks go. . .).
We then had to hurry back over to Mainstage where Crowder, with his trademark awesome hair, brightly coloured shirt, banjo and trembling vocals, did indeed have the arena crowded. "I Am" was followed by the worshipful "My Victory", some crazy drumming going on with two full drum kits on stage. The powerful "Glorious Day" came next, David breaking his guitar strap but recovering well. The crowd were really feeling it, jumping with hands in the air. Funnily, after a glorious day of solid sunshine, at the lyric "I needed shelter" it suddenly began to rain! With a big "Yeah!" they launched into the banjo and harmonica-soaked heavy blues of "Prove It", with everyone jumping and yelling along, before bringing it down with "How He Loves Us", acoustic, with everyone round one mic at the front of the stage, and following with the beautiful "Come As You Are". Then it was back to electric for "Ghost", the percussion creating a sound moody as thunder and David producing the sort of unearthly vocals that felt as if he could part the heavens. He moved onto keyboard for a couple of gospel numbers, before going into "Lift Your Head Weary Sinner", with a crashing beat that shook the ground, the percussionist beating the drums with a bunch of chains (he was introduced to the crowd as "the man playin' the yard sale"). Finally we got a good ole hoedown with "I Saw The Light" and "Fly Away", and there was much swinging of partners before they finished on slide guitar with "Because He Lives". What an incredible performance!
We remained at Mainstage after that. After an interlude featuring a giant beach ball rolling competition, Kari Jobe was next up. Her vulnerable sound was complemented by dramatic stage lighting, the soft beams making her hair seem to glow as she sang. The arena was packed with worshippers as she sang "Holy Holy Holy" and "What A Beautiful Name It Is". Then something precious happened; she invited Stu G and Martin Smith up on stage together to play the old Delirious? worship hit "Did You Feel The Mountains Tremble" with her! She took the second verse, but it felt like old times. From old to new; bidding them goodbye she followed up with a new song she was trying out for the first time, called "Cover The Earth", and it went down very well with the crowd. The rain returned in force as we sang "Spirit Break Out", "I Am Not Alone" and "Reckless Love". Kari was bouncing up and down, saying she loves to worship in the rain, and it certainly wasn't dampening spirits. Finally she sang "The Cross Has The Final Word" (to which my husband indignantly and quite rightly burst out "No it doesn't, the resurrection does! It's Friday, but Sunday's coming!"). Pete Greig preached powerfully on unconditional love and invited listeners to give their lives to Jesus, holding up their phone lights as a symbol of light coming into their lives. It was a beautiful moment.
We ended the day in another beautiful moment; Stu G was showing a premier of his new film A View From The Hill, part of the Beatitudes project, by candlelight in the chapel. The film was gorgeously shot and followed Garrard's journey of discovery with Jesus' words as he met those living them out and experiencing God's presence in places of suffering, marginalisation, stories of mercy, or as they sought to bring peace and justice or stand in solidarity with the struggling. Interspersed, it also showed the creative process he went through with a host of other artists (including Audrey Assad, Matt Maher, Martin Smith, Propaganda and Michael W Smith) to craft an album of songs inspired by each blessing. I thoroughly recommend this deep and powerful film and look forward to its release later this year. He took questions at the end and we were able to thank him for being the highlight of a wonderful day. We walked back to the tent under clear skies once more, but with lightning flashing dramatically on the horizon.
After probably only about five hours' sleep for the second night in a row we had a lazy morning chilling out on the campsite with fellow campers, a guitar and a prayer colouring book courtesy of Tearfund (part of their appeal for an uprising of prayer to end poverty), before heading on site for lunch and a ride on the carousel.
First up was a band I'd not come across before, Trinity, from The Netherlands, who were playing Illuminate. The programme promised a sound combining a range of global influences, and we were not disappointed. As we arrived, lead singer Bert, dressed in an elephant print tank and beaded bracelets, came out to meet and greet us and was really friendly. Their set was as full of sunshine as the blazing weather; they did indeed combine influences from South America (they grew up a missionary family in Peru), the Caribbean, Ireland and parts of Africa into the most joyful and positive pop rock you could imagine. Straight away they got us dancing and clapping, and singing "Ayayayayayayayayah!" for "Got It All", then Bert came out to the crowd barrier with the mic to sing with us, and then hopped into the crowd to get us jumping with him! The next song was a sun-drenched Spanish number, and then they went into "Carried By The River", a song from their latest album, and again with energetic dance moves and an amazing piano solo. He said to us "One of the things I like most about being a Christian is wherever you go there is always family." They sang an acoustic song of blessings and then went into full party mode again with "Made For This". We got loads of crowd interaction again, and they got us all crazy jumping as Bert played an intricate riff on the tin whistle. They finished up with two more high energy Latin songs, "Abrasame" (hug me), and "Fiesta Celestial", the first of which he got us singing along to with his distinctly South American trumpet playing, doing a call and response with all sorts of random phrases, and the latter, with its ska vibe, getting everyone by turns skanking, swinging partners and doing a conga line! They finished by thanking us and the stage crew; these guys clearly have the biggest hearts.
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