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Big Church Night Out and the legacy of Christian rock

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Rock of ages: The Broadmoor World Arena — not pictured here— will play host to the Big Church Night Out Tour Oct. 5. - SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Shutterstock.com
  • Rock of ages: The Broadmoor World Arena — not pictured here— will play host to the Big Church Night Out Tour Oct. 5.
In January 2013, singer-songwriter Father John Misty played a show at the Black Sheep. At the time, the performing moniker/stage persona of Josh Tillman was fairly new, with the album Fear Fun, his first under this pseudonym after releasing eight albums as “J. Tillman,” being released the year prior.

Looking back now, it seems amusing that Tillman’s mocking comments about James Dobson and Focus on the Family at that Black Sheep performance generated any controversy at all, given the general acidity and unorthodox behavior which frequently inhabit all things “Misty.” However, there were some whose proverbial feathers were ruffled. For a moment, though it was a far cry from burning Beatles records or the collective evangelical community’s dismay at Marilyn Manson’s (in retrospect, quite mild) transgressive content in the ’90s, people were again talking about the cultural schism between rock music and religion.

Of course, that assumed schism can’t be all that wide, given the fact that Christian rock — in spite of continual reminders that it has not attained total cultural hegemony — is now a huge industry. Take the upcoming Big Church Night Out Tour, which makes its stop at the Broadmoor World Arena this Thursday, Oct. 5, one of 43 dates running from late September to early December.

The Christian rock event isn’t exactly a concert tour so much as a traveling worship service series, but what will attendees hear? They’ll hear rock music. They’ll hear it courtesy of the headliners, the long-running Australian CCM mainstays Newsboys, and they’ll hear it from the other featured performers on the tour, the Nashville-based, Dove Award-winning Sidewalk Prophets, the post-grunge-influenced 7eventh Time Down, Audio Adrenaline’s Adam Agee, and others. And they’ll hear it all courtesy of sponsorship from Internet streaming service Pandora, who have provided their digital assets to support a Christian tour for the first time.

Christian rock seems to exist in a state of tension, despite plenty of people in the United States now openly enjoying both Christianity and rock music. Singer-songwriter Larry Norman, often considered the godfather of Christian rock, spoke of this tension frequently in his seminal album, 1972’s Only Visiting This Planet.

The Library of Congress, which inducted the album into its National Recording Registry in 2013 (the first Christian rock album chosen for the registry), referred to Norman as a “passionate, idiosyncratic outsider” to mainstream churches at the time. Indeed, Norman’s songs — which stand with some of the best rock songs of the era — are filled not only with his enthusiasm for Jesus, but frank political commentary in keeping with the times, defiance toward the church not approving of his long hair and wild blues licks, and plenty of baiting toward the likes of John Lennon, David Bowie and Paul McCartney.

While Larry Norman perhaps perfectly encapsulates Christian rock’s odd cultural placement of “too raucous and secular for the church, but too religious for mainstream radio,” ironically, a case could be made that rock ’n’ roll music was invented by an overtly religious musician, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe, a gospel singer and electric guitar virtuoso, made records in the late 1930s that foreshadowed and directly influenced the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s undeniably gospel music, but Tharpe’s incendiary guitar lines and the driving, swinging rhythm section are also pure rock ’n’ roll, before it was named as such.

The closer one looks, the more the schism blurs. Of course, there are plenty of examples where Christianity and rock collide in ways that seem forced or incongruous. Bible-throwing Christian hair metal band Stryper and ska act Sonseed, the latter briefly becoming an internet meme in 2008 when a recording of their bouncy, goofy ’80s track “Jesus Is a Friend of Mine” resurfaced, are usually met with more bemusement than awe. (Although it must be noted that “Jesus Is a Friend of Mine” was covered by punk enfant terrible Nina Hagen in 2011.)

However, plenty of artists find critical and commercial success without compromising their beliefs or values. Singer-songwriters Sam Phillips, Bruce Cockburn, Sufjan Stevens, Phil Keaggy and T Bone Burnett immediately come to mind, with the latter amassing no fewer than 13 Grammy wins (and 18 nominations).

Elsewhere, Colorado’s own David Eugene Edwards, of 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand fame, enjoys a cult following worldwide, which is likely drawn more for his indie-rock bona fides than his spiritual lyrical content, though both are certainly impressive. The same goes for Melbourne psychedelic folk outfit Trappist Afterland and the genuinely weird noise-pop of Danielson.

Perhaps, in the end, Larry Norman was right all along. Why should the devil have all the good music?

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