The Riverside Centre, Derby, Thursday 13th November 2014 concert review by Tony Cummings
For obvious reasons, worship celebrations are a hard thing to review. However carefully the earnest journo notes whether a band or soloist is giving of their best, what new material is being performed and whether the snare is a little too loud against the lead vocals, such assessments in themselves fall short in conveying the heart of the whole matter - did the gathered musicians become vehicles in galvanising an audience-cum-congregation into drawing closer to the living God? With this in mind I sat at the back of the carpeted hall in one of the few chairs available and watched the throng pour in. And what a diverse crowd of maybe 1200 they were. Young and old, cool and scruffy, animated and downright excited. This was the third stop in the 10-date Big Church Night In tour and clearly the audience were brimming with expectation. California's Phil Wickham soon had them singing.
When I'd seen Phil on previous occasions at Cornwall's Creation Fest he'd had a band with him but the fact that for this tour his accompaniments were limited to his trusty acoustic and some rudimentary rhythm tracks didn't faze him or the audience in the slightest. By his second song "Heaven Fall Down" his striking voice, with its bursts of soaring falsetto, and the crowd passionately singing "Spirit, Spirit pour out" were having an effect on me. This was prayer being answered. There was a break where Phil exhorted the mass in front of the stage to turn to the person next to them and say hello which resembled, not at all, the forced and embarrassing "hand of fellowship" churchiness of more formal gatherings. In fact, the din of hundreds of animated conversations was close to deafening. Then we joyfully returned to worship. "At Your Name (Yahweh, Yahweh)" had us roaring our praise to "the Lord of all the earth" while during the hymn-like "When My Heart Is Torn Asunder" we felt a surge of strength as we pondered the truth that there is hope beyond the suffering and joy beyond the tears. There was then something of a misjudgment when Phil went into "Heaven Song". It didn't really work as a congregational song and Phil's vocal pyrotechnics, although impressive in terms of technique, made it hard to follow the top line melody. But with the next song the singer/songwriter reached his creative and spiritual pinnacle. Phil's lovely "You're Beautiful" is a modern worship classic and most of the crowd were soon worshipping their God as the images poured out - "I see your face in every sunrise," "I see you there hanging on a tree." There was just time for a hand-clapper finale version celebrating that amazing grace then Phil left the stage.
He was quickly followed by Patrick of Rend Collective who told an amusing true story about his toothbrush fetish leading on to a moving exhortation to support the work of Compassion International. And then, just after 9.00pm, Rend Collective took the stage. They have clearly become masters in the art of celebration. Their bombastic rendition of "Joy", despite a mix which put way too much volume on the kick and drowned out most of the acoustic sounds, had the throng up and celebrating and as thousands of pieces of coloured paper burst up into the air then cascaded down there were few in the audience who weren't exhilarating in the joy, joy, joy lighting their souls. By the time they got to song two, "Holy Fire", the Rends had most of the gathering packed at the front of the auditorium doing a "praise pogo".
The next number was the band's riotous version of "Be Thou My Vision" and as their contemporised version of the Irish hymn blasted out I gazed at a girl, maybe 15, standing to my left singing all the lyrics originally penned by the sixth century Irish Christian poet St Dallan. Some art lasts well. Singer Chris was clearly enjoying himself though he momentarily shocked the crowd with his assertion that "we're not sure we really believe in worship leaders" before continuing, "but we believe in the Holy Spirit." And it was that Spirit that, for me, was tangibly present as Chris and the crowd cried out to God to "change the atmosphere and build your Kingdom here." In the reprise of the song Chris got everybody to put arms around the person next to them in the crowd and soon there were lines of people swaying to "Build Your Kingdom Here". The bespectacled lady to my right seemed to go into hyper-drive as she danced and sang along to "Lighthouse" and as the words of wisdom came from the stage that "down here our lives get in the way of worship" and how our momentary afflictions and distractions shouldn't stop a lifestyle of worship, I for one felt a quickening of my spirit. "Boldly I Approach Your Throne" was sung passionately over loud synth and louder electric guitar, and then Gareth stepped to the mic for a mini-preach. "We don't have to do what I call T-Rex worship," he urged and demonstrated his point with an imitation of Marc Bolan-like bored disdain before reminding us that as revealed by Zephaniah the prophet, the Lord "will rejoice over you with joyful songs."
By then the throng were tiring but still the joyful anthems rang out. "Burn Like A Star" had two elderly ladies in Sponsor A Child T-shirts in front of me getting perilously close to moving to the powerhouse drumming. There was still time for more explosions of coloured paper and four giant beach balls to be batted over the heads of the crowd. The band left the stage not to the usual baying, encore-demanding chant of "more, more, more" but to a clear indicator of where the crowd's focus had rested. "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus" they chanted. And so Bangor's finest returned for a final song, the tender-hearted "Simplicity" interspersed with the oldie "I Love You Lord". A burly man standing nearby was clearly crying as he sang his song of simple adoration.
The next day, in the Cross Rhythms canteen as I was trying to collect my thoughts about my memorable evening in Derby, a friend asked me whether the event I'd been to was a concert or a time of worship. "It was neither. or both." Sometimes words aren't quite enough.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.