Bethel Music Worship Nights closed its east coast run in Atlanta on Palm Sunday. General admission seating meant fans were lined up hours in advance in a serpentine trail through the corridors of the World Congress Center, a long, long way from the doors. Bethel has steadily grown in impact over the past few years, and a recent rapid-fire release schedule (Tides, 9/2013; Discover Bethel Music 12/2013; Tides Live 2/2014; You Make Me Brave 4/2014) has built an audience eager for a chance to capture the energy of their live worship experience. In retrospect, pairing with Martin Smith (whose foundational work with Delirious? had an impact on modern worship music that remains criminally underappreciated) was a natural fit, and Smith proved as lively and passionate as ever.
Doors opened and patient fans streamed in, gobbling up seats, before one brave pair stood front and center in the ample space between the front row and the stage. That's all it took for hundreds more to quickly fill the floor, and their energy never waned. Smith was backed by a 6-piece band and opened with a set culled mostly from his most recent solo releases, God's Great Dance Floor, Step 01 and Step 02. "Fire Never Sleeps" was a strong opener, greeted by a roaring crowd. Smith, all smiles, strapped on an acoustic guitar for the rest of his 7-song set, which was highlighted by two songs: "Emmanuel" and "Back to the Start." The former had the crowd shouting a name for Jesus more often associated with Christmas, but one that found particular relevance at the start of Passion Week. The latter is a quieter prelude to the raucous "God's Great Dance Floor," telling the story of the prodigal son and giving new meaning to the more familiar song. It would still be quite a letdown to offer the appetizer and not the main course, so the song fed nicely into "Dance Floor," and the stage suddenly filled with Smith's and the Johnsons' children, dancing and jumping in a big ole' Jesus party. One pair even had a neatly choreographed dance step that made me suddenly feel like I was in the Newsboys' "Love Liberty Disco" music video. The enthusiasm was infectious, and the floor beneath the feet of the jubilant crowd bounced like a trampoline.
Bethel pastor Eric Johnson, though not a regular part of the tour, was on hand to offer a word of encouragement between sets, calling believers to step out in their faith and recognize that light shines brightest in the darkness. Bethel Music followed, fronted by Brian and Jenn Johnson and Amanda Cook. They opened with a pair of contemplative, mid-tempo songs, "For the Sake of the World" and another Easter-themed song, "For the Cross." Cook followed with her title track from Bethel's newest, "You Make Me Brave." The song's image of a tidal wave as a welcome thing, albeit a bit scary, if it's a wave of God's presence drawing us closer to Him, resonated with the crowd, and the evening turned a bit. Response became more personal and profound, overflowing into the next song, the Bethel/Kari Jobe standout "Forever," which became the high point of the night. Just as Lent builds anticipation for Easter, the previous songs, words, and prayers had led to this moment of recognition of the cross, the Savior, and His victory.
Smith returned and joined Bethel for another celebratory dance party, punctuated with a Delirious? classic, "Rain Down." The crowd begged for an encore, and after a brief huddle, Martin borrowed Brian's guitar for a lovely performance of "I Could Sing of Your Love Forever" and a quick homage to a "young, up-and-coming songwriter from Atlanta that you might hear more about one day," Chris Tomlin's "How Great is Our God." Bethel has more Worship Nights planned for late May in Pennsylvania and the upper Midwest. Dates and details are available at http://bethelmusic.com/events.-- Mark D. Geil, 4/14/14
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