Marriage definitely has its perks. One of them for me is the freedom to travel whenever financially feasible and whenever the time fits into your schedule. Rock The Universe isn't something I just learned of this year, but with a ring on the finger and a wife to travel with, the doors of opportunity swung open enthusiastically.
Rock The Universe runs parallel with Disney's infamous Night of Joy. While Night boasts some big pop names like Jars of Clay, Rebecca St. James, Michael W. Smith, Switchfoot, Kirk Franklin, and Petra located in Disney's fun and family-friendly Magic Kingdom theme park, Rock boasts some of the hottest rock bands in CCM while placing its audiences inside one of the coolest theme parks around. While drastically smaller than the grandiose Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios snatches you from your usual role as a spectator and offers fun thrills as you are placed safely "in harm's way" on rides like Earthquake, Twister, or Jaws. It's fun stuff only Universal offers. So what's much better than catching Audio Adrenaline, the Newsboys, Third Day, tobyMac, Bleach, Skillet, Pillar, and others in between rides like Men In Black and Back To the Future?
While Rock The Universe without a shadow of a doubt rocks socks clear off the feet of those wearing them, there are still a few drawbacks. Three stages showcase various talents throughout the day, however, many artists' shows overlap. For example, when TobyMac closed out the "Hollywood" stage from 9:30pm-11pm on Friday night, Third Day closed the evening out on "The Yard" stage from 10:00pm-11:30pm. Why there couldn't have been evenly staggered performances perhaps throughout the course of maybe a longer day, I don't know (or perhaps even just allowing the final two headliners to play back to back while the other shows earlier in the day overlap). However, the upside is that each band is allowed a longer set. Most festivals only permit 20-45 minute sets for artists. Rock The Universe makes hour to hour and a half set lengths possible.
Friday evening began when they opened Universal's gates to the RTU public at 4:00pm. Unfortunately, all visitors who hadn't paid for an RTU ticket were booted from the park, which stinks for them if they'd hoped to a full day at the park that day. But the biggest disappointment for me was my misguided assumption that the RTU tickets included access to BOTH parks ALL day. WRONG! In fact, not only can you only get into Universal Studios (and not Islands of Adventure too), but you're not admitted into the park until 4pm in the afternoon. However, the upside is that the artists are done by 11:30 and the major rides are kept open till as late as 1:00am!
New Rocketown pop/rock artist Taylor kicked off the weekend on the "Animal Planet Live!" stage followed by speaker David Nasser at 4:30 and the final artist on that stage at 5pm with Big Dismal. Taylor's debut EP isn't even in stores yet, so it was a surprised to find him on the list. His style is comprised of heavy U2 influences and vocally reminiscent of Tree63's John Ellis, however Taylor doesn't really offer anything that stands out from either of them. On the "Hollywood" stage, Warner Christian's flagship trio SoulJahz kicked off the evening with a rousing performance from the brothers/sister group. Back at "The Yard", the rock 'n' roll powerhouse humbly disguised as Bleach seized the stage at 6:45. It was the first show for the Byers brothers to resume playing with the band as they had decided to take a month off after the tragic death of their older brother Josh who was fighting in the war with Iraq about a month and a half ago. It was great to see Milam and Jared back with the band, especially since we saw Bleach without them at Purple Door fest last month. Bleach was in full effect, rocking each song as hard as they could with Jared and Milam clearly giving their heart and soul into each moment of the set. The guys mixed four brand new cuts into a solid collection of classic Bleach favorites, opening with their anthem, "We Are Tomorrow", followed by a new tune entitled "December", "Broke In the Head", "Found You Out", the title track from their new record Astronomy, "Fell Out", "Once Again Here We Are", "Land of the Lost", and "Baseline". The band then delightfully lost themselves in a new song entitled "Tired Heart", a tune lead singer Dave Baysinger described as a worship song. It set the mood well for Dave to share about Jared & Milam's brother before the guys went all-out on the emotional and worshipful "Knocked Out". But to make sure the fest lived up to its name, the band closed their set with their rousing new rocker "Get Up" before leaving.
At the "Hollywood" stage, we missed Kristy Starling's performance at 7:30pm, but caught a portion of Superchic[k]'s explosive set at 8pm. The girl-fronted garage rock band had the audience on their feet and didn't need to do much to get the crowd pumped. They opened with the appropriate and catchy "High School", a song about leaving the petty things of our teen years behind us. The anthemic "So Bright (Stand Up)" and "One Girl Revolution" were sure crowd pleasers before later performing other favorites such as "Hero", "Barlow Girls", and "Na Na", among others. With Pillar's hard rocking set overlapping shortly at 8:15, after Superchick's set began, we soon made our way back over to "The Yard" to catch the guys in action. As usual, Pillar had no problem moving their audience, and "Stay Up" was the perfect song to do it with. To round out the standout track, the band showcased an impressive drum solo by Lester Estelle and a tasty guitar solo from Noah Henson. Following "Epidemic" and the older tune, "Open Your Eyes", the guys tossed a treat to the crowd, playing a piece of a brand new song for the first time for any audience. Lead singer Rob Beckley belted out just the chorus of the song, screaming "You can't bring me down" several times. Although we only got to hear the chorus, it was clear the band was heading in a pretty good direction in the evolution and maturation of Pillar's sound. The band then appropriately closed the set with their runaway hit "Fireproof" and the inspiringly patriotic "Indivisible".
At 9:30pm, once again back at "Hollywood", one third of dc Talk, tobyMac assumed center stage surrounded by his usual camaraderie of dancers and backing vocalists including his infamous female sidekick Nirva. Surprisingly enough, Toby rushed through some of his more signature tunes in a sort of extended medley featuring his opener "Yours", followed by "Get This Party Started", "Somebody's Watching Me", a "Where my freaks at?" rendition of "Wonderin' Why", and "J Train". A message of hope preceded "Irene" and a message of unity and a tearing down of racial barriers served as an intro to the infectious "Love Is In the House". A new regular song in Toby's sets is the classic dc Talk tune "In the Light" which just does not feel right without Michael and Kevin, especially when Nirva substitutes "I'm still a woman in need of a Savior", a line that just helps remind the audience they're not seeing dc Talk perform the song. Probably the most fun-filled segment of McKeehan's set is his ode to classic funk with a cover medley featuring "Play The Funky Music", "Rollercoaster", "Freak Out", "That's The Way I Like", and "We Are Family". TobyMac's set drew to a premature close with the raucous "Momentum" and a surprisingly abrupt instrumental "Jesus Freak" that left the stage vacant. Screaming fans quickly became reacquainted with the Mac when he returned for an all-out rendition of "Extreme Days" and signed off with "Na Na Na Na, Goodbye". TobyMac arguably offers the best live performance of the three dc Talk solo acts, but dc Talk is a tough act to follow up but Toby does a darn good job at it.
Atlanta's finest Third Day assumed the role as the evening's main event as they performed at 10pm at "The Yard". We quickly headed over from the end of Toby's set around 11pm. We made it just in time to hear the open guitar licks of "Consuming Fire", a classic Third Day worship song that will never get too old. This was followed up by their impressive Rich Mullins cover "Creed" and the Smitty cover "Agnus Dei". The guys ended their set with a cut from their Conspiracy No. 5 glory days, "My Hope Is You". For their inevitable encore, 3D offered their hit "Come Together", a call for unity among the body. The tropical rains had been threatening much of Florida state all weekend but had held back for the most part until the Third Day encore. The rain began to fall pretty lightly which prompted Mac Powell to begin "When The Rain Comes" which had the audience cheering and the 3D boys cutting up on stage (despite it being a more serious ballad). The rain actually picked up as the band began singing "Let It Rain" as they got into a worship mode with "Your Love Oh Lord" and a reprise of "You Are So Good To Me". The rain remained mercifully light but continued after Third Day's set had ended around 11:30pm. Day One was drawing to a close as the park was set to close around 1AM, but we decided to catch our midnight bus back to the Holiday Inn to call it a night...
Day TWO... after a stale continental breakfast (sorry, my fault... I overslept!), we headed to Islands of Adventure and reluctantly (well, I was reluctant) purchased tickets for the day to indulge in such goodness as the Hulk coaster, the Spider-Man ride, the Jurassic Park River Adventure (yeah baby!), and the Cat In the Hat ride. With the Rock the Universe tickets keeping us out of Universal till 4, we didn't leave Islands till 4:30pm and made our way over to Universal Studios. Justifide was set to open the day on the "Animal Planet" stage followed by speaker Jay Strack at 4:30 and Across the Sky at 5. Amy and I took our time getting to the shows that day as we were realizing how relaxing this weekend wasn't turning out to be. So we caught a portion of The Elms' 6:15pm set at the "Hollywood" stage as they opened with an excellent cover of The Who's "My Generation" followed by the classic rock sounds of their originals "Who Got The Meaning?" and an extra-long version of "Speaking In Tongues". Hunger lead us away from the band's fun set as we sought out sustenance before the later evening festivities. Across The Sky made another appearance at 7:30pm on the "Hollywood" stage while Paul Colman Trio had begun at 7:15 at "The Yard". MercyMe began at 8pm at the "Hollywood" stage while Amy and I wandered the streets and braved the elements of the Twister attraction before Skillet's 8:45pm show at "The Yard". After successfully emerging from the attraction unscathed, we secured a spot amongst the enthusiastic and sometimes rude audience members awaiting Skillet's presence. But when Skillet did show, they delivered, offering such rockers as "You're Powerful", "Best Kept Secret", "Kill Me, Heal Me" and "I Can". Lead singer John Cooper was his usual fun self as he took the opportunity to brag about his ten month old daughter Alexandria and let her be brought out on stage for the crowd to see. Thanks to the schedule overlaps (note sarcasm), we had to wade through the tightly-packed fans to make our way to the "Hollywood" stage to secure a spot for my most anticipated performance of the event...
Everybody and their pet salamander knows Audio Adrenaline is my favorite band. Fact is, I've enjoyed their music for nine years now since I was fourteen and this show would make it eighteen times I've seen them live in those nine years (with the nineteenth ironically just a week away at my home church where Amy and I tied the knot in June). Anyway, the show we'd been most eagerly anticipating kicked off with a similar intro to Creation East's grand entrance as the band took the stage to the sounds of the anthemic "Worldwide One". Mark Stuart's long locks are still a little hard to adjust to considering his frequently changing hairstyles, but like with Creation, sported a homemade "Rock The Universe" tee that successfully played well with the crowd. "Mighty Good Leader" followed, along with the upbeat and deliciously fun and frantic pop/punk tune "Church Punks", and the infamous oldie, "Big House". Audio Adrenaline boldly supported the theme of evangelism as Mark shared urged the audience to get more involved in missionary opportunities around us preceding "Dirty" and "Hands And Feet". The band's latest runaway hit "Ocean Floor" was a must for the set and was followed up by "Chevette", "Underdog" and a message from Will McGinniss introduced the fantastic "Leaving Ninety-Nine". The groove-tinged guitar-driven update to "We're A Band" moved to the pop-fused crowd pleaser "Beautiful" in which the band invited several audience members on stage to aid in rocking out the song. The upbeat "Get Down" from the band's Underdog record served as the set closer before they returned for an encore. The band requested their swing reinvention of "DC-10" and featured a humorous moment when Stuart briefly forgot the words to the song's second verse. To party 70's style, AA played their nod to metal with the anthemic "Start A Fire" before closing with a hilarious cowbell solo from Stuart and a medley of Grand Funk Railroad's "American Band" mixed with a reprise of "Worldwide One" to end the set. We quickly joined the mass of people making their way to "The Yard" to catch the tail end of the Newsboys's set as they were performing "Amazing Love" followed by "He Reigns" and other favorites like "Breakfast" before closing the night with the irresistible "It Is You".
Rock The Universe may not be the most relaxing weekend in the tropics for someone needing to get away, but it's nonetheless a fun one. The mixture of the Universal Studios theme park and a Christian music festival was a cool and intriguing concoction. Probably the only real complaint -- besides some overlapping shows -- I found was the often immature, rude, and obnoxious behavior of a large number of the Florida teenagers. With having been to many many shows in Pennsylvania since my start in concert-going nearly nine years ago, I can't remember the last time I'd encountered so many rude and pushy teenagers all at once.
If you're a Florida native and Rock The Universe sounds like something you'd be interested in, I suggest checking it out next time around. And if you're not local, like us, you may just want to make the trip to experience a night liable to indeed Rock The Universe.-- John
Random Festival Shots
SoulJahz -- Friday, 6:15pm, "Hollywood"
Bleach -- Friday, 6:45pm, "The Yard"
Superchic[k] -- Friday, 8:00pm, "Hollywood"
Pillar -- Friday, 8:15pm, "The Yard"
tobyMac -- Friday, 9:30pm, "Hollywood"
Third Day -- Friday, 10:00pm, "The Yard"
Pillar -- Saturday, 6:15pm, "Hollywood"
Skillet -- Saturday, 8:45pm, "The Yard"
Audio Adrenaline -- 9:00pm
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