When iconic CCM group Newsong held their first January Jam outreach concert back in 1995, no one saw it becoming the annual anomaly it is today. After all, how can an event with such humble roots—requesting only a $10 dollar donation at the door—stay afloat for nearly two decades?
Yet stay afloat it has, and not only is the now re-branded Winter Jam Tour Spectacular the largest Christian music event of the year, but the record-breaking No. 1 tour in the world three years running seems to only get bigger and better with time, consistently outdoing themselves on the scale of both talent and top notch entertainment.
The tour has taken on a life of its own in the nearly 20 years since its initial conception, boasting headliners throughout the years as Steven Curtis Chapman, Jeremy Camp and Skillet. The event has also served as a launch pad for the careers of artists such as Hawk Nelson, Francesca Battistelli, and for KING & COUNTRY.
While big name billing and galvanizing production—rivaling that of their biggest mainstream counterparts—is always a given, the one thing that has remained the same throughout the life of Winter Jam, is the nightly focus on edifying the Church and winning souls to the Kingdom through the approachable conduits of God honoring music and ministry time.
After another successful leg through the East Coast and Midwest earlier in the year, Winter Jam was met with thunderous praise as they announced their return to the West in late of 2013. The tour's third year on the left coast coincides with what they, and many fans, believe is their strongest line-up of entertainers yet. As a massive fan of the Winter Jam ministry, and someone who has been able to attend the event multiple times on both coasts, I was eager to see what the publicized second half of the show held for concertgoers. On the tour's opening night in Ontario, Calif., I finally was able to see for myself.
The usual early bird crowd of what would become 10,000 strong started lining up outside the Citizens Business Bank Arena early in the day, the peculiar November heat wave not keeping die-hard fans from the show. The doors were only open for an hour before the unsurprising announcement was made that the Fire Marshall was ordering the doors to close, calling it a capacity crowd.
As the massive conglomeration of people made their way to their seats, recovering from the over-stimulation of artist merchandise and overpriced concession stands, the annual Pre-Show Party got underway with new Word Records artist, Everfound.
The freshman group, comprised of Odnoralov brothers Nikita (lead vocals), Yan (drums) and Ruslan (guitars), compelled the crowd with their dynamically energetic blend of pop/rock, performing current singles "Never Beyond Repair" and "God Of The Impossible," also throwing in the pulsating tune "Hallelujah," diving deeper into their alternative rock leanings. While each Pre-Jam artist only given an eight-minute window to win the crowd over, Everfound used their time wisely and left a weighty impression.
Fellow new artists hailing from Canada, Love & The Outcome followed close behind. The duo, better known as husband and wife Chris Rademaker and Jodi King, brought their unique modern class to the table, delivering their songs "When We Love" and "King Of My Heart" to a crowd beginning to get fully involved in their set. Jodi's soaring vocals shone brightly as they closed their short but sweet set with their current radio hit, "He Is With Us."
Wrapping up the Pre-Show was soulful artist Dara Maclean, who performed songs exclusively off her latest project, Wanted. Dara, who is significantly more well known than the prior two acts, got the crowd going with her single of the same name, and ending her time with a powerfully solid performance of "Set My People Free."
As the house lights went dark and the room began to fill with cold, icy haze, the electric 360 circle stage lit up from front to back as the first act of the night, Building 429, took the stage to an adrenaline-filled crowd. 429 delivered a spectacle of glitz and entertainment as they launched right into the gritty tune "Bonfire," going directly into another fast paced tune, "Get Up." The band, which is driven by lead vocalist Jason Roy's booming voice and contagious persona, kept the crowd on their feet as they jumped into the anthemic portion of their set, with their current single "We Won't Be Shaken," and their chart-dominating hit "Where I Belong."
Winter Jam founders and annual hosts/performers, Newsong, came next. It's incredible to see a band with their longevity still captivate a crowd young and old alike with such tunes as "Swallow The Ocean (Coming Alive)," and arguably their most well known song outside of "The Christmas Shoes," "Arise My Love." As a barrage of lights hit two disco balls centered in different areas of the arena, the room lit up like sparkling confetti as the band led the crowd in the well known Hillsong track, "The Stand." Their performance ushered in the Holy Spirit, and once more reminded everyone in the room of the focus of the evening!
The show went on next with dynamic female vocalist Tiffany Lee, AKA Plumb, who recently reappeared on the music scene after a lengthy hiatus, drawing in the masses with her larger-than-life voice and bubbly personality. An intro video highlighting some of her well known hits like "God Shaped Hole," and "Cut" led in a solid performance of "Say Your Name." "In My Arms" and "I Don't Deserve You" changed the pace dramatically, while her all-too brief set came to a close with none else than her comeback hit, "Need You Now (How Many Times)." The powerful song left many in tears and sold the California crowd on her performance.
As is Winter Jam custom, the merchandise island located outside the crowded arena doors came to a pause as third year tour speaker and founder of the RESET Movement, evangelist Nick Hall, took the stage and offered a brief yet relevant Gospel presentation, with many in the room responding to his invitation to follow Jesus. Preaching from Hebrews 12:1-2, Nick encouraged the audience, namely the youth in the room, to run the race set before them and begin to pursue God with everything in them, leaving behind the sin and bondage that would hold them back, offering the encouraging word: "Fall for Jesus instead of falling for everything else."
One might think after such a powerful moment of souls coming to Christ, that a rock show might seem a tad off-putting, but when said show is by Canadian rockers Thousand Foot Krutch, who boldly proclaim the name of their Savior throughout their set (regardless of audience, mainstream or Christian), it becomes perfectly appropriate. Frontman Trevor McNevan hyped the crowd up with songs off their latest album, The End Is Where We Begin, such as "Sparks Fly," "Light Up The Sky," and "War Of Change," while taking his signature spine-sculpted microphone stand for a journey down the tour catwalk as he led the group in older hits like "Fire It Up," and the always necessary "Rawkfist."
The mellow pace of Tenth Avenue North counterbalanced the blistering rock performance preceding them, and captivated the crowd with songs like "Losing," "Strong Enough To Save," and "The Struggle." Lead Vocalist Mike Donehey, known for his outspoken honesty, told the audience that it was alright to raise their hands as they dove into the tune "Worn," making the strong comparison that holding out their hands is what weary children do when they need to be held by their father. With Donehey climbing high into the bleachers of the crowd to serenade members of the audience, the group concluded their emotive set with a mash-up of the songs "You Are More" and "By Your Side."
An unexpectedly lengthy 30-minute set-change preceded the much-anticipated performance of David Crowder's new bluegrass-oriented worship outfit, simply known as Crowder. With the stage laden with bearded members of Crowder's band, they brought something completely fresh to the table with their folksy renditions of former Crowder Band hits such as "No One Like You" and "O Praise Him." Throwing in the welcomed inclusion of a few yet-to-be-released songs, the classic hymn "Because He Lives" stirred the audience, while his signature concert hoedown got everyone in the room practically square dancing as they toe-tapped along to the sound of fiddles and banjos.
The night had run long, and by the time Crowder finished, it was already past 10 p.m.—a full night to say the least, but it wasn't over yet. After astounding performances by the previous nine bands, the headliner of the night finally took the stage. It was time for the Newsboys!
With a stage show including green screen video footage and a rotating drum kit that switched the focal position of drummer Duncan Philips throughout the night, the band went hard, delivering track after track off their new project Restart. "Love Like I Mean It," "Live With Abandon," "Fishers Of Men", along with the title track were combined with some of the band's classic hits like "He Reigns" and "Something Beautiful." A passionate B-stage performance of the tearjerker "That Home" led the way beautifully for the worshipful creed "We Believe," while the dubstep-influenced "That's How You Change The World" paved the way for the band's rendition of "Jesus Freak," complete with fan favorite, the spinning drum riser.
Known for their epic production, the band still had one surprise left. As they launched into the anthem their rendition made famous, "God's Not Dead (Like A Lion)," the crowd watched in surprise as lead vocalist Michael Tait made his way to a platform located on a crane in the middle of the venue, which elevated him stories into the air as he hovered back and forth across the room, the crowd chanting every word of the song right along with them. It was a spectacular way to end their show, and an even better way to conclude the evening.
It's easy to see why many on Winter Jam are calling this one of the best artist line-ups in their history. This is one of the strongest tours I've seen in quite some time, where tears, laughter, and encouragement abounded. Granted, it's a fast paced evening, and you almost wish each group was presented with a little more time to hear their hearts, but in the end, the theme of the night is presented strong through each and every performance.
Flashy lights, stunning production and incredible performances you'll get, there's no doubt about that, but more than anything, you will be presented with the life-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that doesn't come off as cheesy nor self-righteous. The beauty of the evening is found in the brokenness of the people both on-stage and off, and the beautiful gift of grace we're each freely offered that gives us new life.
As you look at the crowd around you at Winter Jam, you are reminded that behind each face is a story, and behind every story, is a God-orchestrated calling that unites us as a body, free to struggle, yet equipped to change the world. And that, friends, is truly something worth celebrating.