I’ve had the opportunity to attend many concerts throughout the years. Nearly every time, I come away with a greater appreciation of the artists’ music and a deeper understanding of their songs through stories told and videos played. This tour, however, took that depth of understanding to a whole new level, and I can honestly say it was the most moving and engaging show I’ve seen to date.
If you’ve read anything about Matthew West’s latest project, The Story Of Your Life, you probably know that Matthew locked himself in a cabin for months, pouring over thousands of fan submitted stories about their lives and through that, found inspiration for the 10 songs on the album. The album was one of my favorites of 2010 and by far, Matthew’s strongest work to date that should have netted him a nod for Male Vocalist of the Year. Paired with the upcoming talents of label mate Josh Wilson, I was certainly expecting an enjoyable evening and was thrilled it turned out to be so much more.
Josh opened the show playing through his hit songs “Shine On”, “Before The Morning” and “Savior Please.” Using a repeat pedal and an acoustic guitar, Josh made up for the lack of a backup band by creating his own beats and rhythm through various guitar tricks. It was fun to hear him put a beat together, record it, loop it and then play through the song.
Before he played "Always Only You," a song he wrote for Becca, his wife of a year and a half, he joked, “If anyone has questions about marriage… I am not the guy.” He followed that with his latest single, “I Refuse,” a song that encourages us to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Josh said, “As Christians, we can’t do everything, but we need to refuse to do nothing.”
Josh closed his set with an instrumental performance of “Amazing Grace” that was nothing short of stunning. Josh is one of the best guitar players I’ve seen, and his worn guitar proved he'd spent countless hours perfecting his craft. That skill was on full display for about six minutes as he captured an entire room with this performance. If you can't catch him on tour, make sure you watch this live performance. Stunning.
Immediately afterwards, Josh turned the stage over to Matthew West in what was the shortest intermission between artists I’ve ever seen. Matthew played through a few of his more familiar songs from past releases including “The Motions”, “More,” and “You Are Everything.” Matthew then told the story about “Only Grace” and how he wrote it while visiting a maximum security prison, scared to death and surrounded by fear. He felt he was the wrong guy for this job of ministering in this setting and wondered how he got himself into that situation. But then the warden let him go into an area where they rarely let anyone go and it was there, in solitary confinement, where he begun to just sing the chorus to "Only Grace."
“There is grace to break through our walls of our own prison,” Matthew encouraged us. “His hand extends to us, encouraging us to get back up again.” It was a small glimpse into Matthew’s storytelling that would define the rest of the night and it was encouraging to hear God inspiring a songwriter in the midst of personal ministry.
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After “Only Grace,” Josh Wilson was invited to come back and perform the hymn, “Jesus Paid It All,” with Matthew and the band, and then it was time for intermission. Matthew prepared the audience for “a night of stories.” The stage was set as Matthew brought his cabin to us and began to focus entirely on his latest album, The Story Of Your Life.
For the next 75 minutes, we were treated to introductions of the stories that inspired his new album. Each song had a 4-6 minute video introduction showing Matthew personally visiting with families and individuals who submitted letters, and it was incredibly touching to see an artist turn his craft inside out, involving everyday people--not only drawing inspiration from his surroundings and everyday experiences, but literally penning lyrics from the submitted letters filled with heartache, pain and celebration.
Matthew started with title track, “The Story Of Your Life,” and followed that by “My Own Little World." A video introduced the next song, “Strong Enough,” inspired by a single mother whose daughter’s college dreams were smashed in a car accident that left her in a series of 13 surgeries (and counting) since. The girl had mentioned to her mother, “I know God won’t give me more than I can handle. Well, he must think I’m pretty freaking strong.” That line stuck with Matthew, along with Philippians 4:13 that says we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. “When you’re facing an impossible mountain,” Matthew said after the video, “and you feel you can’t move it, you’re right. You can’t. But God can.”
“Family Tree” was next, a song inspired by a girl realizing her dark family’s past was not her legacy. As Matthew encourages in the song: Just like seasons change, winter to spring, you’re bringing life to your family tree. God’s calling on our life is independent of our yesterdays. He has chosen to restore all that was broken, to love us unconditionally and create beauty from ashes.
Matthew then told the story about being a bigger kid in middle school. His dad’s idea of exercise was a bike ride… to Dairy Queen, and then calling mom for a ride home! But Matthew was always picked on growing up, and through that, he’s developed a strong heart for the outcast. It’s through similar stories submitted from those who feel friendless, alone and driven out by the world around them that he wrote “To Me,” a great love song from God to us.
While the night has some emotional stories, nothing moved me more than the next segment about adoption, and the song “One Less.” I’m not sure what it is, but my heart breaks for this subject. The idea of taking in an orphan, with little hope, and supplying them with a Christ-filled, loving environment where they can thrive knowing a God who loves them… wow.
I lost it during this song, and hearing about empty nesters who felt they were not done. A few months from retirement and dreams of traveling the world, God put a sharp and clear calling towards adoption in this couple's lives, and now they are raising a little girl. I have two little children of my own. My wife and I are on the same page that we’re done. But the idea of adoption has always been strong. Adoption may not be in our near future, if at all, but I’d like to find more ways to support organizations and families who are looking to adopt. After all, the Bible calls us to take care of our orphans and widows.
The night continued with “2 Houses” and “Survivors,” which celebrates beating cancer. Matthew spoke with a woman who was recently diagnosed with cancer for a third time. I’ll never forget what she said in the video. “I got this. But if I don’t, I know where I’m going and there’s no cancer there.” There was such certainty in both statements, either which, was an outcome worth celebrating.
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One of my favorite songs on the album is “Broken Girl,” but I struggle hearing it because of its content. It’s the first song, Matthew explained, that he wrote out of pure anger, and I believe it. It’s such a well-written song that brought many around me to tears. Sexual abuse is a destroyer whose effects are everlasting, but there is healing and restoration through God. Throughout this song, a simple graphic of a heart slowly being shattered and then restored visually displayed the truth at both ends of this incredibly emotional journey of being broken and then put back together by a God who loves us.
The night ended with “Reason for the World” and “Healing Has Begun.” Matthew closed the night by saying, “Sometimes, as a Christian artist, I feel like I’m not making a difference, like I’m just preaching to the choir. But we all have broken stories. I read 10,000 of them from the choir and the choir is just as broken as everyone else. But we put our hope in Jesus to heal the broken. There is healing when we choose to allow God to work in our broken chapters. What’s your broken chapter? What’s going on? Have you been left hopeless? Your healing is not far off or beyond your reach. It begins now.”
Matthew’s dad, who is a preacher and has been touring with him lately, was invited on the stage to pray with anyone who wanted to receive it. As people flooded the front of the stage, I remained in the back, praying for broken stories to be healed, for lives to be restored, for hearts to be mended and for weight to be lifted. And as I thanked God for an amazing evening full of stories of victory over challenging situations, the healing began with many, as I'm sure it does every single night on our incredible tour.
Kevin McNeese started NRT in 2002 and has worked in the industry since 1999 in one form or another. He has been a fan of Christian music since 1991. Photography provided by Michelle Gillatt.