Winter Jam has become an annual tradition for me - a way to break up the dull, depressing Pittsburgh winters with a little bit of cheer, good fun, and gospel. This year provided everything I've come to expect in my four years of covering the show. For an incredibly small ticket price at the door, you get to experience a vast array of top Christian musical talent, ranging widely in genre, broken up with occasional sponsorship advertisements. What I love about the tour, and my minor gripes about the tour (i.e. truncated set lists for performers) all give way to the heart of what Winter Jam is. Winter Jam is a sincere ministry carrying the gospel to huge arenas, packing said arenas with people for a very low price, and ministering to those souls who were able to make it out. In my opinion, Winter Jam is THE perfect scenario to bring unbelievers in your life out, under the guise of a fun night with lots of music, and actually slip some of the good ol' gospel in their ears.
The Pre-Jam party this year was carried on by three acts - a male pop trio named Westover, a worshipful singer named Mallary Hope, and Dan Bremnes, who has achieved some modest success within the CCM world in the last few years. Winter Jam's success rate of choosing these up-and-comers for the Pre-Jam party is staggering; with little known acts like for KING & COUNTRY, We Are Messengers, and Sidewalk Prophets kicking off the festivities in recent past. All three acts this year were radio-ready, with a pop flair and beautiful melodies.
The rest of the night was a who's who of the Christian music world. As I usually say yearly in these reviews, I do still wish the set lists were longer. It is, however, how a huge tour like this functions. There's only so much time, and with this much talent on the roster, something has to give. So as is typical with Winter Jam shows, you get a brief set from each artist, usually compiled of their biggest hits, with maybe a new song or two thrown in. This year is no different. While it often feels like the set is ending just as things were picking up, this approach, while formulaic, feeds right into the bigger picture of what Winter Jam is. I get that, and I respect it. It's not really about hearing the deep cuts - it's getting to the heart of those good folks who showed up, and that's often through their most popular work.
Jordan Feliz kicked off the night with a high-energy set including his current hit, "Witness," and ending things with the renowned "The River." It was short and sweet, and I was genuinely surprised at just how much energy was brought to this set. It was the perfect way to officially kick off the night. Following Feliz was tour founders Newsong. While they played some of their newer songs, like "Down" and "I Am a Christian," it is always "Arise My Love" that will have my heart. Complete with the stunning light cross from last year, this performance steals the entire show for me - every year. There's such power in it, and it's honestly something I look forward to every year. KB was back for another year of Winter Jam, and he's the most underrated talent in Christian hip-hop, in my opinion. KB brought the energy that you would expect, while still having a few of the most reverent and introspective moments of the evening. His "Don't Stop Believin'" interlude will never get old to me as well.
Nick Hall took center stage to deliver a short message that felt all too appropriate for today's society. It centered on letting go of distractions to grow in God. Hall had a beautiful way of cutting through and getting to the heart of the matter. He spoke boldly and clearly, and it was something I feel everyone (myself included) needed to hear or be reminded of.
Kari Jobe followed up with a worship-laden set including mega hits like "I Am Not Alone," "Forever" and her stunning cover of "Revelation Song." Her husband Cody Carnes even got in on the action with a performance of "The Cross has the Final Word." (Check out my long review of Jobe's recent "Garden Tour" here).
A nice addition this year was comedian John Crist. If you're reading this, I'm sure you're already familiar with some of his viral videos. I'm happy to report that he is just as funny in person, if not more. No spoilers, but he does a Lion King bit that absolutely killed!
Pop-Rock band Building 429 and rockers Skillet closed out the night, with the latter ending the evening. Both brought some serious "oomph" to their performances - a raw, visceral power that saturated their sets. The pyro and showmanship was next level. Hopefully the photos (below) convey this. A standout moment was actually one of the more quiet moments of the night. Skillet took center stage, amid minimal lighting to perform "Stars." Before that, though, John Cooper took some time to address the audience and share his personal testimony. This is perhaps the best analogy for Winter Jam. The spectacle is something to behold. But it's the quiet, worshipful, heart-reaching moments that will keep you coming back.
Winter Jam is an institution. I believe in this ministry, and it has to be by the grace of God that they keep going - for a mere $15, you are treated to an unforgettable night. I rather imagine for some, a life-changing night. So my recommendation is that you go to Winter Jam. Go with as many people as you possibly can. Stuff the car (fit a few in the trunk if you have to). Just go and experience a move of God.-- B.J. Smith, 2/27/18
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