Hillsong is a bit of an enigma. It’s a band – several bands, actually – named after a church in Australia. One of those bands, Hillsong UNITED, is basically the church’s former youth group band. They don’t really have a lead singer, nor a lead guitarist, and they’re not even particularly known for their vocal or musical chops. In many major cities you’ll never hear a Hillsong original on Christian radio. How is it, then, that they can sell out major arenas in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, New York City, Atlanta, and Boston, and fill them with fans overflowing with anticipation and eagerness to sing along with every word of every song?
Indeed, Hillsong is big. UNITED’s 2011 US tour is a major-market-only tour, visiting only 12 cities in support of the band’s latest. Aftermath. The album debuted at No. 1 on multiple international retail charts and came out of the gate as the band’s biggest release yet. Notably, the album landed at number 17 on the Billboard Top 200, a chart that includes all mainstream genres, not just Christian music. During their last tour a stop in Chicago outdrew the likes of Billy Joel, Elton John and the Eagles.
All that notoriety, and last week I could have only told you one name from the whole band. Joel Houston is the face of United (permit me lose the caps-lock), if there is one. I had to look up the names of his two compatriots, Jad Gillies and Jonathon “JD” Douglass. A press release says, “The UNITED team is also an evolving collaboration of pastors, worship leaders, musicians and songwriters.” Huh?
With that hint of mystery I found a seat at the Aftermath tour stop in Atlanta, another sold-out show with 13,000-plus fans. Not surprisingly for a mostly-faceless band, the stage was not all that elaborate. The signature bass drum was decked out in apparently hand-lettered strips of colored tape.
Just before 8:00 the house lights dropped and the lights went down. The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” played on the loudspeakers. All of it. Hillsong likes to give a song its due. They don’t seem to mind if a song needs to linger, marinate, even. They are masters of the current worship music model of the slow build, with verse after verse eschewing the chorus until the very end, and then only after a protracted bridge. Sure, it’s a formula, but it works.
The band took the stage to roaring applause and opened with a set of high-energy songs and a most animated delivery. “Go” from Aftermath was the spirited opener. If it’s not already being sung by youth groups around the world, it soon will be. The first little break happened five songs in, with a brief welcome and the obligatory proclamation of Atlanta as “one of our favorite places”. Don’t you always wonder if they say that in every city?
“Mighty to Save” followed, and the Aussie accents from the stage met the Georgia accents in the arena. I knew Hillsong crowds were loud, and this one was no exception. It was interesting, though, to witness how much of the volume was not cheers and applause. There was singing, loud singing. There was frenzy and shouts of praise. There was the stunning, resounding a capella tag from “With Everything”. But it was as if the songs did not need that much applause when they ended. The songs were the applause, directed to God. Brilliant.
About that singing: there are those occasions in concerts when the singers drop out completely and the crowd carries the song for a verse or two. I’m confident that Hillsong’s singers could just kick off each song and sit the rest out. Gillies delivered the first line of “All I Need is You” and was so overwhelmed by the audience singalong that he just stopped and smiled. There was a group of folks directly behind me who were bad enough to be on those horrible American Idol audition shows, but it didn’t matter. The blend of voices was strong and stirring. It’s a cliché, but maybe that’s a hint of what Heaven will sound like.
The band maintained their anonymity throughout, remaining focused on praise. There was no introduction of the members. The keyboard player had his back to us the whole time. In fact, the four players on the “back row” remained shrouded in darkness. I think the five on the front row wouldn’t have minded if the spotlights failed altogether. Maybe that’s part of the reason for their success.
Hillsong have a tendency to write songs with masterful music or masterful lyrics, but not both. Often, one is enough. Sometimes they hit on both. The title track of the new album, “Aftermath”, is an example. The song arrived in the middle of the set, and it was stellar. Coupled with a long spoken word introduction, the entire epic consumed close to ten minutes, but they were minutes well-spent.
The energy ebbed a bit in the second half, which is understandable and almost necessary for a show close to three hours with no break. If “Nova” and “Aftermath” were the climax, the chorus of “The Stand” was the denouement, lifting the crowd and preparing the way for “Inside Out” and “With Everything”.
The song that somewhat ironically opens the new album closed the concert. “Take Heart” is gentle, almost languid, and would not be a conventional choice with which to open or close. For this night, though, it fit. The show was a marathon, and this was the tired, parting breath, with its own fantastic marathon bridge. “Take heart. Let His love lead us through the night.”
One final note. Kudos to the Hillsong team for donating tickets to local ministries, even for an otherwise sold out show. I’m not sure, but I believe a stack of tickets was given to a homeless shelter so they could bring their residents. This is thoughtful and kind.