The place? Santander Arena in the heart of downtown Reading, Pennsylvania. The temperature? Typical frigid January air. The lineup? Arguably the strongest yet. What else could it be but the Winter Jam Tour Spectacular? Here are some highlights and thoughts from the night.
Blanca brought down the house with her brief, early set. She's a face to watch in the industry. Propelled by the success as part of Group 1 Crew, she could really become a powerhouse presence in the biz in the coming years. Her hit "Who I Am" is an instant hit. Plus, her onstage energy is ridiculously infectious. Keep an eye on this gal. She just might take the industry by storm. It was also a treat to meet her after the show. She's a true class act.
VERIDIA is a rock act to watch for sure. They bring an emotional punch to music that should propel them to success. And I am sure their set was definitely one of the night's strongest. They put on a breathtaking acoustic encore later in the evening, showcasing their versatility. There's definitely a reason they're nominees for Best New Artist of the Year in the WE LOVE CHRISTIAN MUSIC AWARDS.
A HEADLINER EMERGES
Few bands can match the energy and excitement onstage than that of for KING & COUNTRY. Just three years ago, they were some unknown act opening Winter Jam, and now they're one of the brightest rising stars in Christian music. And if you have any doubt of who's probably going to be headlining this thing in a few years, just look at the line to meet Joel after the concert. Other than the line to meet Skillet's John Cooper, nobody else came close, even well after the show was done. Their showstopper of a set was also one of a solid night's strongest moments.
DUETS FOR THE WIN
Winter Jam is a great opportunity to do duets, and this night was full of them. Some of them were obvious collaborations, like Blanca joining Building 429 on stage for "Press On" reprising her appearance on 429's album. What a dynamic duet it was. But some of these duets were definitely super surprises. Like Newsong bringing Jen Ledger of Skillet out for an emotional take on the Hillsong UNITED hit, "Oceans." It definitely was a standout moment of a rocking, worshipful evening. Even Skillet got in on the action when the for KING & COUNTRY guys came out drumming during the finale of "Monster." Seeing some of your favorite artists rocking out together onstage is one of the unique thrills Winter Jam makes possible.
MAD PROPS FOR PROPS
It wouldn't be a rock concert without making use of some props. Whether it's tossing large rubber balls into the audience or bands using creative ways to get into the crowd to interact with fans, it's always fun to engage fans beyond just standing on the stage. And of course, Skillet is the king of visual props. Their signature pyrotechnics were joined by some firecrackers and colorful sparklers to bring the awesome to an even higher level.
From the annual showstopper of Newsong's classic "Arise My Love" and Building 429's grand finale of "Made for You," to for KING & COUNTRY's truly epic "Proof of Your Love," the night was filled with great songs to leave quite a mark. "Write Your Story" gave Francesca Battistelli a super kick-start to her set. And Family Force 5's "Let It Be Love" showed that the Family can offer an accessible pop gem alongside their signature frenetic crunk rock. But of course, the highlights of most Winter Jams are their headliners, and when you have a headliner of this caliber...
In their eight-song set, Skillet did what they always do. They demonstrated why they are one of the most powerhouse performers in the entire music world. The brilliant use of the operatic intro to "Not Gonna Die" jump-started a classic set, complete with classics like "Whispers in the Dark" and "Hero," and even a new stripped-down, banjo-driven rendition of crowd favorite "Those Nights." (Complete with nerd glasses) And of course, it wouldn't be a Skillet concert with "Rebirthing" slamming the night out in legendary status. When Skillet is performing, you know you're in the presence of musical greatness.
CAVEATS AND CONCERNS
A night this big can't pass without raising some concerns, and this year probably is raising more than ever. The first is that the show seems to be starting sooner and sooner after opening the doors. I realize that the first three acts are "pre-show," but it felt like the doors were barely opened before they started the night, causing even those of us not that far back in line to miss opening act VERIDIA. (Yes, I'm bitter about this.) Perhaps this is just a venue thing, but if they want to start earlier, just open the doors a little earlier. Those of us freezing in the cold (as well as the bus drivers who constantly had to beep at the line that extended into the street) will thank you. These fans are waiting hours in the cold to see these bands and I don't really see the logic in not making it so as many fans as possible can see as much of the show as possible.
Some of the sets were also noticeably shorter. I am not sure if it's just a band choice thing or if they really are tightening the reigns a bit, but Skillet's set was noticeably shorter than the last time they headlined.
Speaking of which, maybe it's the lack of true headliners emerging in Christian music, but Winter Jam (among other tours) seems to be cycling through the same few headliners these past few years. Now I could go every year just for Skillet, but knowing they can't do it every year, I do worry that Winter Jam may get a tad too predictable with their headliners and artist selections. Here's hoping they can find ways to keep the night fresh without becoming underwhelming.
Ten bucks at the door to see some of the biggest names in Christian music, all in one night. It's like a condensed major music festival, for very little cash. A good four hours worth of performances for that little? Even with the unfortunate likelihood of missing the opening acts, it's tough to complain too much since you'd still be seeing a lot of artists for quite a good deal. Heck, usually the headliner's set alone is worth the price of admission, and this year's is no different. From start to finish, this is the concert of the year across all genres. You'd be hard pressed to find a better value for your money.
J.J. Francesco is an aspiring fiction writer who enjoys Christian rock, good movies and TV, good food, and good company.