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Different Drummers, but the Same Message

July 30, 2002|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a coin toss which sight was the bigger eye-opener at Sunday's Fish Fest in Irvine: silver-haired adults bopping and singing along to a crunching rap-rock band, or spiky-haired kids in hip-hop outfits dreamily swaying to '70s-rooted pop balladry.

But so it goes in the world of contemporary Christian music. Perhaps more striking than any of the 10 individual acts that appeared on two stages over nearly seven hours at the event put on by Christian radio station the Fish, KFSH-FM (95.9), was the way this community has united disparate groups to an extent that the secular pop world still can't match.

That's because in Christian music, message always supersedes the medium. So whether it was South Africa's the Benjamin Gate pounding out punk-metal, Ohio's Relient K thrashing out punk-pop, Southern California's Pax 217 grinding out rap-rock or Nashville-based headliner Michael W. Smith crooning ballads of praise, the audience of about 14,000 that nearly filled Verizon Wireless Amphitheater drank it in with democratic enthusiasm.

The breadth of the musical spectrum on display also made it seem a lifetime ago that contemporary Christian music regarded the beat as a tool of darkness. While Smith's soaring songs of worship harked back to those days when nearly all Christian music floated along on a gentle folk-pop cloud, the rest of the performances showed a Christian equivalent to virtually every sound that exists in secular pop.

The overall batting average in terms of gripping artistry is little better or worse than in the wider pop universe. Only Relient K and singer-songwriter Jennifer Knapp offered much to anyone looking for lyrical sophistication.

Australia's Newsboys give a pretty electrifying performance, but even the passion lead singer Peter Furler exhibits on stage can't fully compensate for over-generalized expressions that leave many of their songs too vague.

Where most of the other performers were likewise content to praise God or celebrate their faith in the most general terms, Knapp looked at specific faces of the struggle to understand the meaning of spirituality.

Relient K, on the other hand, brought a refreshing sense of humor while offering low-key messages of ethical and moral integrity, bound up in energetic, melodic punk with enough Offspring-like hooks to give the band a real shot at airplay on modern-rock radio.

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