The biggest contemporary Christian music show ever to come to Salt Lake City is putting on a roadshow tonight.
That's the Rock & Worship Roadshow, which isn't playing a church cultural hall, but rather one of the highest-profile (and costliest) venues in the state, with top-tier Christian acts such as MercyMe and Jeremy Camp performing. Tickets are just $10 at the door and except for VIP tickets, no tickets were available in advance, by design.
The Roadshow could be seen as a litmus test for whether Utah can join the East Coast and the South as must-stop locations for top Christian tours. Utah audiences, always unique, haven't yet proven to be the promised land for Christian music.
"We decided to add Salt Lake City because it's a vibrant community," said Cliff Reiser, owner and president of Ohio-based Rush Concerts, which is running the Roadshow tour along with MercyMe, a Texan Christian rock band that is one of the biggest draws in its genre. "People need to come out if they want us to come back."
This is the fifth version of the Roadshow, and the first one to stop in Utah. "This will be one of the biggest in a very long time," said Eleanor Rennemeyer, who books many smaller local Christian-music concerts via the People for Christ Ministry, generally at Salt Lake City's Calvary Chapel. "It might be the biggest."
Earlier Roadshow tours skipped Utah on their cross-country swings. And Utah sell-outs have been rare for top-drawing national acts such as Michael W. Smith, Third Day and Casting Crowns. "That has definitely been the image and perception, that we don't get the big acts that other communities do," said Greg Johnson of Standing Together, a local nonprofit ministry that seeks to build unity among evangelical churches and pastors in Utah.
Johnson helped bring Michael W. Smith to Draper last year, and he terms the Roadshow as a "historic" event for local Christian-music fans.
When Smith, considered the father of contemporary Christian music, visited Draper last year on Pioneer Day, the event drew more attention for a lawsuit threat from a local atheist who wanted the concert canceled because of possible church-state concerns. The Draper City Council, after voting to ban the concert, reconsidered and allowed it to go on at the city-supported amphitheater. The turnout proved disappointing.
Lowell MacGregor, of Seattle-based Christian promoter LMG Concerts, recently brought Third Day and Casting Crowns to Abravanel Hall. Neither act sold out the venue, which they routinely do in other cities. Promoting Christian-rock shows anywhere is a risky proposition, MacGregor said, but especially in Salt Lake City, where there's no major Christian radio station to spread the word.
But MacGregor hasn't soured on the market's potential. "I would go back to Salt Lake City if I had the right act," speculating that Christian acts such as TobyMac, Chris Tomlin and Skillet (which last performed in Utah at Saltair) could draw large crowds.
One problem in Utah, MacGregor says, is finding musicians who appeal to two very different local audiences: contemporary Christian music fans and Mormon music fans. MacGregor found support from Mormon music fans at the Third Day and Casting Crowns shows, but there wasn't a sizable overlap.
Bob Ahlander, who calls himself a fan of contemporary Christian music, is director of music and film for Deseret Book, a division of Deseret Management Corp., which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He believes that Christian music springs out of the evangelical Christian culture more pervasively than in the LDS and even Catholic culture, and that Mormon music fans simply aren't exposed to Christian acts.
Mormons are "typically uncomfortable" mixing the sacred with the secular; rock bands singing about Jesus strike some as off-putting. "It's not the way Mormons worship," Ahlander said.
Brad Haslam, national sales manager for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountains Records and Publishing, will be bringing his wife and two children to the Roadshow. He has told his daughter who is turning 8 on Friday that her birthday party needs to end by 5 p.m. so the family can make the concert.
"I have tried for the last eight years to introduce many of the popular Christian acts to friends and family," he said. "It's hard for them to wrap their heads around it. It's unknown to them."
LDS church services typically emphasize "soft, sacred hymns," so when Mormons encounter Christian rock bands with loud guitars, showy piercings and flashy tattoos, it can seem foreign. Some Mormons might not appreciate the rock edge or commercialization of the sacred, Haslam said.
And he also questions whether the EnergySolutions Arena is the right venue for the show. "If they have a hard time selling out Casting Crowns at Abravanel, what about ESA?" Haslam asked.
Johnson, of the Standing Together ministry, was raised in the LDS Church, but left to become an evangelical Christian at age 14, and said his outreach involves connecting Mormons and other Christians. He said there is "something within Mormonism where young people wonder if it's OK to listen to these [Christian-rock bands]."
Rush Concerts is taking the Salt Lake City show so seriously that they contracted independent marketer Ricky Bowersock to focus on building an audience for the show. "The faith brings people together," said Bowersock, who has spent several weeks promoting the show. "It's very open. It doesn't alienate anyone." Bowersock is hoping that the Salt Lake City show mirrors the Feb. 16 Roadshow in Dallas, where American Airlines Center sold out.
One case to support the hypothesis that contemporary Christian shows aren't just tailored to evangelicals or Protestants is up-and-coming musician Matt Maher, who's something of an anomaly in the scene by virtue of being Catholic. Three of his albums have reached the Top 25 Christian Albums Billboard chart, while four of his singles have reached the Top 25 Christian Songs chart.
In May, he opened for Third Day, and in a phone interview, said he aimed to write songs that appeal to all Christians. "I would love it if [Abravanel Hall] was filled with Mormons, so we can worship together," he said.
In another interview before that May concert, Third Day frontman Mac Powell said the band doesn't feel like it has to mention Jesus in every song. "It's such as huge part of us as individuals," he said of his faith. "We tend not to compartmentalize our religion."
Third Day collaborates with secular acts such as The Blind Boys of Alabama and Needtobreathe, both of which contributed to its recent album "Move." One of the songs from "Move" was selected by ESPN to promote its college football coverage, while another was selected as the theme for the TV reality show "Sarah Palin's Alaska."
Bowersock, the independent promoter, is predicting a good turnout for the Roadshow. He offers a recommendation for music lovers: "The lines get long, so get there early."
Sing a new song
When • Friday, Feb. 22, 7:30 p.m.
Where • EnergySolutions Arena, 301 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Admission • $10 at door; no tickets sold in advance
More • The idea for the Roadshow was dreamed up over several years, said MercyMe's guitar player Michael John Scheuchzer. "A few years ago, we got nicked [by fans] at the ticket price," he said in a phone interview. "People told us they couldn't bring all of their family. And we're a family-friendly show." Since then, "it's been the coolest thing to see families come." The idea of depending on people to show up without advance tickets, especially in the early days, was nerve-wracking. "You never know if snow will close the Interstate," he said with a laugh.