Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fish Fest concert review

Photo by Kelly A. Swift/For the Orange County Register

A version of my review appeared in the OC Register

Fish Fest
Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, Irvine
July 25

A little humor goes a long way – especially during an event where most of the music has a serious message.

Halfway through his Fish Fest set on Saturday, Matthew West freestyled a short tune on his acoustic guitar, a la Jason Mraz, about playing in SoCal and withstanding the afternoon heat. Later in the evening, Hawk Nelson would also do an impromptu number – far less successfully – about the joys of drinking Diet Mountain Dew soda.

Fish Fest, the annual concert put on by local Contemporary Christian Music station KFSH/95.9 FM (“The Fish”) and Transparent Productions, returned to Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine. A dozen acts performed on three stages over the course of seven hours. Proceeds benefited Compassion International, an organization that sponsors impoverished children in Third World countries.

Upon entering the venue and perusing the various vendor booths, I came across a cool silent auction that comprised a couple dozen guitars and CD plaques signed by various Christian acts. All the money raised there was earmarked for five ministries, including foundations set up by headliner MercyMe, Third Day, Steven Curtis Chapman and Michael W. Smith.

A banner over the main stage sported the radio station’s logo and slogan: “Safe for the whole family.” It’s been awhile since I saw so many parents and kids at a pop/rock show. Surely, the low dough ticket price for most seats ($9.59) was an enticement and helped fill the place. Little ones even had a section with inflated bouncers to keep themselves busy. Unlike most summer concerts at Verizon, there was a mist tent, extra tables and plenty of shade.

NeedToBreathe was a revelation – I’m not talking scripture here - on the main stage. Led by brothers Bo and Bear Rinehart, the rootsy alt-rock band from Possum Kingdom, S.C. often recalled Kings of Leon and Black Crowes during an invigorating 35-minute performance.

They opened to a still-arriving audience with the feisty banjo and harmonica-laden “Outsiders,” the title track from the third major label album (due in stores next month). Everything off 2007 release “The Heat” - was mesmerizing, including the chiming guitars and supple group harmonies on “Streets of Gold,” the latter-day U2-styled “Signature of Divine (Yahweh),” mainstream AAA radio hit “More Time” and soulful “Washed by the Water,” where singer/guitarist Bear gave a nod to John Fogerty and sang a line from “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” Can’t wait to hear the rest of the new stuff and see a complete gig by these guys.

For the past three months, West has dominated the top spot on Billboard’s Christian Songs chart with stirring ballad “The Motions,” which is taken from last year’s “Something to Say.” Prior to closing with the track on Saturday, he worked both sides of the stage and proved he was a master at audience interaction at every turn. The uplifting “More” (a mega Christian radio hit from 2004) led to a spiritual chant. West appeared to text or tweet while singing the opening verse – now that’s multi-tasking! He did impressive rapid-fire vocals for the ebullient pop of “Next Thing You Know” and told an inspiring story about performing at a prison before ultra-dramatic “Only Grace,” which segued into an “Amazing Grace” singalong.

This Beautiful Republic, which would slot in well at the Warped Tour, easily won over a gaggle of teens at the Edge Stage (right before dusk, the alt-metal sounds of RED got an equally enthusiastic response). The successful screamo band delivered punishing rhythms and searing guitar work on “Surrender Saved My Life” and blistering radio fave “No Turning Back,” then turned things down to a medium boil during a surprising cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”

San Diego singer/songwriter Phil Wickham is a regular presence at SoCal church events. Like West, MercyMe and a few others, he spent a major chunk of time onstage sermonizing. The diminutive Wickham and his band opened with song featuring a gorgeous wash of atmospheric guitars/keyboards, then sang with a quavering voice and did expressive gestures on “Desire” and “Heaven & Earth.” The audience joined him when words were displayed on the screens.

Since the mid-1990s, Jars of Clay has amassed multiple Dove and Grammy Awards and sold millions of albums. Following top 40 single hit “Flood” in 1996, the pop/rock group found support at a variety of secular radio formats. On 2006’s “Good Monsters,” the quartet frequently delved into edgier sonic terrain with winning results. Eighth studio album “The Long Fall Back to Earth” finds them experimenting further, clearly influenced by electronic-based acts like Postal Service and Depeche Mode.

Several of the new tracks comprised their too-short 35-minute Verizon set, including the intriguing “Weapons” (key line: “lay your weapons down/there are no enemies in front of you”), current top 10 charter “Two Hands,” synth-heavy, upbeat “Don’t Stop” and new wave-ish “Closer” (keyboard bits were triggered; one member appeared to be missing).

Despite a muddy sound mix, frontman Dan Haseltine (pictured, above) and company persevered. He was all over the stage, kneeling at times and engaging the crowd. For those who hadn’t seen JOC in awhile, it was a surprise to hear Haseltine delivering such muscular vocals. Even more of an eye-opener was the totally reinvented and hard rocking “Flood,” complete with vocoder. The band only had time to squeeze one more old fave in (“Love Song for a Savior”). Fans went mad for it all.

You’d think Hawk Nelson was headlining Fish Fest from the massive teen crowd watching and all the bells and whistles on the Edge Stage (strobes, smoke plumes). The young Canadian punk/pop band is akin to Green Day, though not as lyrically or musically mature. Still, the football chant-styled “Bring ‘Em Out,” “Letters to the President” (about social issues), power ballad “Everything You Ever Wanted” and high energy “Friend Like That” were thoroughly enjoyable and prompted pogoing galore.

MercyMe has an All American Band appeal, not unlike matchbox 20 or Rascal Flatts. The popular and acclaimed Texas sextet put out “10” earlier this year, which commemorates all their No. 1 singles to date on the Christian radio charts. The 65-minute performance kicked off with the danceable “Time Has Come.” Far more impressive live than the CDs or videos would indicate, affable leader Bart Millard made comical asides and introduced each song.

Highlights included the strident, vaguely psychedelic rock of “So Long Self,” a faithful take on Tom Petty’s “I Wont Back Down,” breezy “Alright” (with a snippet of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”), understated folk of “Finally Home” (dedicated to those who have served in our armed services; images of veterans returning from duty played on the stage backdrop) and highly emotional signature song “I Can Only Imagine.” Concertgoers (at this point, Verizon was three-quarters full) held their arms aloft in praise throughout MercyMe and got to do a second singalong of “Amazing Grace.”

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