Tony Cummings goes to St Albans Vineyard to check out a powerful worship ministry, THE BURN BAND.
St Albans Vineyard have been in their new, spacious building located on an industrial estate for three years but it still has the look and smell of a brand new facility. This cold Sunday evening, like every Sunday, the one-time warehouse is crammed with predominantly teens and 20 somethings here for the weekly alternative service The Burn Church. But tonight is extra special.
Burn's regular assemblage of worship musicians, now officially dubbed The Burn Band, are launching their new album, 'All From You'. The praise concert begins with brief words from The Burn Church's co-pastor Rick; Chris Lane, who has been the pastor of St Albans Vineyard for some 17 years or so and is the father of The Burn Band's leader Sam Lane; and Vineyard Records UK's Chris Whitelock. Chris Lanes amazes everyone with the information that the first album emanating from The Burn Church, 2003's 'Beautiful', has sold a stunning 45,000 copies. But then all thoughts of such prosaic matters of unit sales are put to one side. The throng are here to worship and as the slight, T-shirted figure of Sam Lane counts in the first howling vortex of guitars and the words, "Whatever is true, whatever is right" flash onto the giant screens left and right of the stage, worship is what they do. The sound is loud, as loud as most rock gigs, and that seems to suit the worshippers, many of whom have raised hands in the air. One or two are dancing.
"You are higher, you are higher. you are glorious, you are glorious," sings Sam on the song which is now the Delirious?-tinged title track to the Burn Band's album. Another rocker follows. "This song is called 'Joy'," announces Sam and the thunderous beat encourages a black girl behind me to dance and clap. As the song cuts away to an organ passage the simple lyrics "He's the love, He's the hope, He's the joy," come up on the screens. Sam oozes passion, transparently meaning every word he sings.
Later Sam speaks about his start in leading worship. "I started playing guitar when I was 12 and slowly got into worship leading by doing it in home groups and all that stuff. About seven years ago I got employed one day a week by the church and eventually became full time worship pastor about three years ago. I head up all the worship for the church. I also have various secular bands at the same time. As soon as I started playing guitar I started writing songs. Really, the formation of the Burn Band started on the 'Holy' album (released in 2002) because that album was an amalgamation of Vineyard musicians within the UK and what you could call the early Burn Band played on four of those songs. After that Vineyard Records UK were interested in doing a whole album with the Burn Church musicians. We spent about a year working and gathering songs together and those became the material on the 'Beautiful' album."
Now it's the turn of Carly Orpen to take the lead vocalist mic. This black haired slip of a lass has a beautiful, haunting voice and the slow "More Than A Friend" is a gem. It was written by Jeremy Riddle of the Vineyard's mother church in Anaheim, California. As the song reaches its soaring climax, with the words "I long to bring you a pleasing offering/And I am overwhelmed/And I am lost for words to describe you," I put my pen down. There's a time to be the impartial observer journalist. And there's a time to let our hearts soar to an enigma God so sublimely beyond words yet whose presence demands our stumbling expression of love. The next song Sam sings, a mid tempo rocker called "King Forever", rather passes me by though. Maybe it's the appearance of a car registration number of a vehicle needing moving which appears on the screen which distracts me from the worship in hand. One thing I do pick up on though is the delicious bass line played by the tall, head-shaven "custodian of the groove" who I later learn is called Henry Cross.
Bass player Henry Cross talks about his memories of the Burn Band's trip down to G2 studios in Littlehampton to record 'All From You' with producers Paul Burton and Mark Wilson. "Paul wasn't there for a lot of the recording. He came up with a lot of ideas, him and Tom. Some of the songs got totally transformed, new parts were written. For me a song I really like is 'King Forever', it's a cover of a song written by a girl called Kat Register. When you hear it on the album it's great and very different; when we started playing it we were trying to put a bit of a Burn on it and a few other things like dropping chords on it and adding some new parts to it. It's great."
One of Sam's strings snaps and he plaintively asks for help in the guitar's re-stringing before, with another guitar, he kicks into the rhythm for "How Could I Live Without You" and Carly, leaning over her acoustic guitar, begins to sing.
Says Carly, "I've been here at Vineyard four or five years. I have always loved singing, since I was a tot really. Now I love songwriting as well. I wrote 'How Could I Live Without You' on the album. We are very lucky - there are a lot of musicians here at the church. I sing a lot of my songs in pubs and secular events..Tonight I was able to invite a lot of people, guys from the pubs to the gig which is great. It is amazing that we can sing these songs about God in a pub and they go down really well with the crowd."
Sam introduces the next number. "The song took me six years to write.it's a prayer to God really." The simple, naked honesty of the verses of "I Love You" grip me. "I want to be close/I want to be pure.I'd like to have faith and be a friend of yours." The sheer power of its confessional verses and its simple declaration of adoration leave no room for artifice. This is heart music.
Sam recalls the genesis of "I Love You". "I started writing it six years ago. The verses try and portray a longing to know God more. But I never really got the chorus right. We actually did the song as 'I Can't Believe The Grace' for about a year in worship at The Burn. But I was never completely happy with it. I changed it a couple of times before I got it right. There's a songwriting tip that Vineyard teach. You sing verse and when you've got the chorus you should be able to sing 'and that's why I say' before the chorus starts. The chorus 'I love you' seems to sum up everything I was trying to say in the verses."
Some helpful soul has restrung Sam's guitar and he thankfully takes it and counts in his lovely, mid tempo composition "So Near" with Carly singing the tremulous lead. Sam is back to the mic for his song "Have Mercy". Intriguingly it contains a memorable line, again one of stark honesty not on the album version of the song. "Why am I so selfish?" sings Sam with revealing honesty. Voices soar over the thunderous rhythm Ed Carlile pounds out on the toms. Throughout Ed's drumming has been outstanding. Here he excels himself.
Ed Carlile gives his thoughts on the art of drumming: "I'm not sure there is a great deal of difference between playing worship and non-worship music. When I'm drumming I'm drumming very similar things, be it a function gig or a band gig or a church gig. So I don't think I'm PLAYING anything differently. But it is in the mindset. When I'm playing worship I try and remember why I'm doing it and be grateful to God for being able to do that. I just hope that I can do a good job. I think that one of the things that Burn has tried to grasp hold of is to break down the barriers between secular music and non-secular music within worship, because what's the difference, where's line between worship and a U2 gig?"
Clearly Sam is up for a bit of U2-style rock. "Here's a couple of rockers now.none of this pop rubbish!" Such a tongue-in-cheek aside shows the bespectacled, long haired worship leader is a long way from the mealy-mouthed religiousity sometimes associated with the term "worship leader." Sam and his band of full on pub rockers turned worship band leap into "Son Shining". Sam bellows the first verse, "You are my everything/I can't, can't help but breathe you in/Your truth, it amazes me/Your glory, it is rising." The band rock out and the congregation sway to the loud, raw beat. Another of Sam's joyful celebrations of joy in Christ, the throbbing "Thank You", follows. Two teens at the front seem perilously close to starting a mosh. But then Sam quietens the now sweating crowd down a bit as he introduces "Come To Me", written by Ryan Delmore, "a friend in America" who, he warns laconically, is "a bit of a country guy." Haters of country music need not have worried. "Come To Me" is a haunting, acoustic song with a wistful lilt, powerful lyrics and a sympathetic keyboard-driven accompaniment.
Keyboard player, accordionist and album sleeve designer Adam Dickens is, with Sam Lane, the only musician in The Burn Band line up who played on the 'Beautiful' album. Asked to compare the two projects Adam comments, "I think there's a lot more rehearsal to 'All From You' but I think there's a lot of space. If the songs are changed it's because they were not working. Most of the sounds I use are created by Mac, a software package. That gave me the organ sounds. We used the actual live piano in the studio which gave us a slightly better sound, harder to mic up but a better sound."
The next song, "You're The Love", which for me is the climax of the whole evening. It is slowish, impeccably played, sung tenderly by its composer Sam. It begins with lyrics that seem plucked from a private prayer journal. The words "You're the sunshine on my face/When it's pouring with doubt, fear and rain/You break through, you break through" flash on the screen. Then comes that haunting, ludicrously simple, utterly right chorus, "You're the love, you're the love." I'll leave it to traditionalists to critique the simplicity of many modern worship songs and the theologians to question how God could presence himself in a three note chorus. All I know is that God anoints this song.
After that there was still time for a "Joy" encore before I have to usher the clearly exhausted band into a side room for an interview. Again, I'm impressed by Sam's non-religious persona and his engaging lack of ego. ("Yeah, I've heard 'Beautiful' has sold 45,000 and is still selling. But to tell the truth I feel a bit disconnected from that, because I'm just a worship leader in a church and there aren't 45,000 in our church! There's about 600 to 700, so it's a good number. But not 45,000!")
As I make my way back to the car to begin the long journey back home, I ponder the unexpected twists and turns of a worship music industry where a band of musicians who'd been brought together to lead worship at a church's alternative worship evenings end up making a dent in the international worship scene. But then I muse, didn't a similar thing once happen to another bunch of musos who formed to lead worship at Littlehampton's Cutting Edge event? A delirious thought.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.