Ichthus Festival Heats Up Kentucky
NRT Contributor Mary Burklin reports on a week full of music from one of the summer's largest Christian music festivals, Ichthus.

Ichthus Festival in Wilmore, Kentucky holds the rather prestigious distinction of being the longest-running Christian festival around. In its 41 years, the festival has seen a lot of legendary artists on its stages.

This year was no exception.

The festival boasted one of the best line-ups I had ever seen, enough so to make a 13 hour roadtrip well worth it. This year’s Main Stage headliners included Red, Family Force 5, Skillet, and Chris Tomlin, but each of the other five stages boasted an impressive array of talent as well. The diverse and strong line-up provided an incredible gadthering point for people from very different backgrounds.
Wednesday night, Hillsong UNITED headlined the main stage to kick off the festival. Although many festival-goers were still on the way, setting up tents, or waiting in the rather lengthy will call line, Hillsong UNITED still drew a fairly large crowd. Because so many of their songs have been played at churches across America, their set moved many people to sing along, creating what felt like a massive worship service. The atmosphere was incredibly powerful. Towards the end, the setting sun illuminated scattered clouds left over from storms that morning, creating an incredible display of color. “I want everyone to look over that way,” Joel Houston directed. “That just proves that God can put on a better show than any show we can put on up here.” That moment captured the feeling of the evening better than anything else.
There were several acoustic sets on the Galleria stage after that, notably an exceptional acoustic performance by Remedy Drive (who would be taking the main stage the next day). Their energy translated surprisingly well to an acoustic format.
On Thursday morning things got started early with morning worship (led by Robert Pierre) and devotions at the Deep End stage. Each day started off with speakers running simultaneously on multiple stages. These smaller sessions provided some incredible opportunities for conversation, as many of them were held as a dialogue between the speaker and the audience.
Each of the stages had a very unique feel, which made walking through the festival grounds feel somewhat like listening to a sampler CD. Most of the harder rock artists played on the Deep End Stage, and on Thursday bands like Write This Down and Project 86 played sets that were simultaneously intense and explosive. Building 429 played an early afternoon set on the Main Stage featuring several songs from their recent release, Listen to the Sound. They were one of the few bands there that I had never seen live before, and I was incredibly impressed by their engaging and conversational stage presence. Remedy Drive followed them up with a set full of their trademark energy. Despite the almost complete line-up change that has happened in the last few months, the band still meshes incredibly well on stage. They smoothly pulled off both older Remedy Drive songs as well as tracks from their recent Light Makes a Way EP. 
The two main acts of the night were Anberlin and Red. Anberlin was initially slated to play on Friday, but due having to leave on an international tour with Linkin Park, the festival allowed them to play a day early. Their set was incredibly solid, relying more on their infectious hooks and Stephen Christian's chilling vocals rather than complex production. Anberlin does not play many Christian festivals, so it was exciting to see them playing Ichthus.
Headliners Red took the stage a little after 9:00PM. They started the show with a massive white sheet over the stage. It was twilight, just dark enough that the audience could clearly see when a large black “Red” logo was lit on fire behind the sheet. Lead singer Mark Barnes walked out to the crowd's deafening cheers, and then they dropped the white sheet as they opened with their hard-hitting song “Feed the Machine.”
Red's set was instantly memorable. Besides the flaming logo, they had two massive pyro rigs at the front of the stage that each shot five massive jets of red flame high into the air. Fireworks illuminated the sky over the stage's roof during climactic moments. Streams of sparks outlined drummer Joe Rickard's kit (we would find out later that his hair actually caught on fire at one point). Red finished off their set with their signature song “Breathe Into Me,” leaving an audience with a set that they would be discussing for a long time.
Friday saw festival-goers out early and ready for more. After more exceptional morning speakers, the stages kicked off with bands like The City Harmonic and Hyland. The sun was out in full force, which sent many people seeking shade in the merch tents. Several band members could be caught wandering through the tents at different points throughout the day, and there were also some incredible non-profits with representatives to talk to.
In the afternoon, the Main Stage hosted rockers The Letter Black and Seventh Day Slumber while the nearby Galleria stage was busy with acoustic artists Tal & Acacia and Derek Webb, artists who are usually more on the edges of the Christian music scene. The Main Stage line-up for the evening had people gathering early and waiting for hours in hope of a good spot. Thousand Foot Krutch opened up the evening with an incredibly raw and engaging set under a sky that had turned threatening and gray. They stuck to some of their tried-and-true rockers like “Falls Apart” and “Rawkfist.”
Energetic speaker Matt Pitt took the stage after their set. He gave his testimony, focusing on the power of God's love. His talk ended in an altar call. The movement in the crowd was massive. Hundreds of people rushed towards the crosses at the top of the hill. It was an intensely powerful moment, an incredibly strong testament to the work that God was doing throughout the event.
Unfortunately, shortly after Matt Pitt left the stage they announced that there were severe thunderstorms headed our way. Everyone was sent back towards their cars for safety reasons with the assurance that the schedule would resume within an hour. A mad scramble to reclaim spots close to the stage followed some brief showers. Once most people were back in place, one of the MCs got up on stage and asked how many people had been praying that the storms would hold off. Most of the crowd raised their hands. He then said that they had been watching the radar and had seen the storms split in half and go entirely around the tiny town of Wilmore. It was another powerful moment.
Family Force 5 took the stage amidst a few light showers. Not to be deterred by the slippery surface, lead singer Soul Glow Activatur danced out on the stage's walkway holding a massive umbrella. The crowd was incredibly energetic and excited after the forced break. Soul Glow decided to ride the crowd's enthusiasm, quite literally. When they came out for their encore song (“Ghostride the Whip”), Soul Glow rolled out on stage in a massive inflatable plastic bubble and used it to crowd surf.
Anticipation built even higher as Skillet prepared to take the stage. The crowd was chanting the band's name long before the stage was fully set. By the time they took the stage to the explosive opening riffs of their 2006 song “Whispers in the Dark,” the energy reached its peak. Skillet has become famous for their pyro-driven shows, but this summer they've kicked their production up yet another notch. Massive light panels provided a backdrop and a base for Jen Ledger's drum riser (which would later prove to be a hydraulic lift that rose up and rotated during her drum solo). During the band's hit song “Monster,” frontman John Cooper sang from the top of a massive Monster head with glowing eyes and cryo jets shooting from the sides. However, one of the highlights of their set had nothing to do with production. John Cooper reached down into the crowd and took a thick fur vest with a hood shaped like a llama head from a kid in the crowd and proceeded to wear it throughout their performance of “Those Nights.” Later he added a white fedora from someone else in the audience to the getup.
Throughout the performance it was clear that although Skillet has seen massive success in the mainstream market, their message still stands loud and clear. John Cooper both encouraged and challenged the crowd before playing “Awake and Alive.”
By the time Skillet closed with more pyro and the explosive “Rebirthing,” most of the crowd was worn out and ready to rest. Some of the hard rock fans however crowded around the Deep End stage to catch Demon Hunter's late night set. It was one of only two shows that the band will play this year, and so they played a strong mix of older and newer material to appease fans who won't get to see them again for some time.
Saturday morning started out slow due to more rain showers. All of the morning speaker sessions were entirely canceled due to weather. By late morning the clouds were clearing out enough to allow the crowds to slowly file back onto the festival grounds.
The covered Galleria stage was packed all day long, partly due to the threat of rain and partly due to the exceptional lineup (JJ Heller, Aaron Gillespie, and guitar legend Phil Keaggy). A core group spent most of the day at the Deep End stage, where we had the opportunity to see some exceptional bands who usually don't get much spotlight. Reilly played an set infused with the infectious sound of their trademark electric violins. Eleventyseven played a laid-back electronic pop set that had the crowd singing along. Rockers Philmont and Ivoryline carried the afternoon, playing to a crowd that grew progressively bigger as the day went on. Hip-hop artist Manafest provided a change in pace with an incredibly engaging set.
Decyfer Down was slated to play a 30 minute set, but after a delay due to soundcheck difficulties they were cut off after about three songs (apparently due to concerns that their songs would interfere with the speaker on the main stage). Although this was disappointing, most of the audience for Decyfer Down was also there for Disciple or Fireflight, so fans still had something to look forward to.
Veteran rockers Disciple took the stage with a slightly different line-up than usual due to the temporary absence of bass player Israel Beachy. Guitarist Micah Sannan filled in on bass while former long-time Disciple member Brad Noah helped out on guitar. The unusual line-up seemed to add to the band's already intense performance. They played a good mix of songs from last year's Horseshoes and Handgrenades as well as older records Southern Hospitality and Scars Remain, even going back as far as their self-titled release for the song “Rise Up.” Lead singer Kevin Young also took some time to talk about God's love and trustworthiness before their powerful song “After the World.” His passionate and encouraging words were one of the highlights of their set. Another highlight came towards the end, when guitarist-turned-bass player Micah Sannan reached down and stole a firehose security had been using to keep the crowd riled up and used it to douse the security guard instead.
By this point Chris Tomlin was preparing to take the Main Stage, but Fireflight still gathered a very large and enthusiastic crowd for their set. They played crowd favorites like “Unbreakable” and “Stand Up,” as well as delving into material from “For Those Who Wait.” The setlist was very well balanced, and new drummer Adam McMillion contributed flawlessly to the set. They talked about working on new material, which probably means their setlist will be changing soon.
Following Fireflight's set, technical difficulties delayed the schedule significantly. The Almost should have finished their set at 11:45, but they did not even get to begin it until close to 11:30. When they finally got to take the stage, their infectious rock melodies completely took over, along with the intense energy of frontman Aaron Gillespie. They focused primarily on tracks from their sophomore release “Monster Monster,” but they also threw a few wildcards into the mix, like a cover of Tom Petty's “Free Falling.” Aaron insisted on waiting between songs to watch the clock turn to midnight before they kept playing.
The Almost finished up their set with the worship-styled “Amazing Because it Is” from their debut album. It was well past midnight, but the crowd still had more than enough energy to raise their hands together in worship. It was a beautiful ending to the festival, another moment where it was incredible to witness the way that we united through worship.
Throughout the festival, multiple bands commented from stage on how strong the line-up was. As the festival progressed I realized how much that added to the experience, in multiple ways. It was good in that those of us with fairly diverse music taste would get to see many of our favorites, but it was also good in that it united people who otherwise never would have met. I watched total strangers become friends, at times going out of their way to help each other out. I saw music fans who were usually more comfortable with worship acts enjoying Skillet, and I saw hardcore fans joining in worship during Hillsong's set. The mix of people created an incredible space for dialogue, both on and off the stage.
Ichthus also provided countless opportunities for the church to get involved in living out their faith outside of the festival grounds. Compassion International was one of the primary sponsors of the event, and their table saw many people going to support children in third world countries. A massive tent titled the Global Village was full of booths for different ministries from across the globe that festival attendees could get involved with.
Overall, Ichthus was an incredibly encouraging event that really demonstrated God's power within a community. It is a rare and incredible thing to see so many people from so many backgrounds united with the purpose of worship— whether that worship take the form of a blazing pyro-enhanced rock show or a stripped down set on a side stage.

Mary Burklin is a college student who loves Jesus and seeks to echo His love in everything she does. She loves art in just about all forms, but music is her passion and where she feels most at home.

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