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Review: MercyMe, have mercy on our wallet and time

By By Autumn D.F. Hopkins
For the Sunday Gazette-Mail

Charleston, W.Va. — I walked into the Clay Center lobby Friday night and found myself besieged with tables of merchandise and informational booths. It looked more like a convention than a concert, but considering there were three bands set to perform, and it was close to the concert start time, I didn’t stop to peruse the merchandise. Instead, I went and quickly found my seat in the packed auditorium.

Rarely, do I see a show in Maier Foundation Performance Hall with both balconies open and near capacity. Rob Rosanno, director of theater and sales for the Clay Center, took the stage to thank the sponsors and mention that it had been six years since the Clay Center had hosted a contemporary Christian concert, and that, from the response, they would definitely be hosting more in the future. But I wonder, will they see quite the same turnout for the next show?

Local musicians, The Bible Center Band, took the stage first. The eight-piece ensemble presented a three song set of well-polished praise and worship music and proved themselves as good as any professional act. With pleasant three-part harmonies, a variety of instruments and a brief Scripture sharing, they set the tone for what could have been an entertaining yet worshipful evening.

Then came the first commercial.

After The Bible Center Band left the stage and the grips came out to change the instruments and configuration of the stage, Barry Graul, guitarist for MercyMe, took the stage with his young son to spend, roughly, the next 10 minutes hocking a cruise ship package. For the low cost (which by the way was never mentioned) of $800 to $2,600 a person, you can spend seven days in the Caribbean in January with several of your favorite contemporary Christian bands.

Weird, just weird. I can never remember a concert where anything except CDs and T-shirts were hocked and the occasional charitable donation solicited.

Graul finally left the stage and Citizen Way came on for a six song set. The four-piece ensemble consisted of two sets of brothers. Their music had a typical Top 40 boy-band sound and could easily be interchanged with anything by Big Time Rush or One Direction or any of their ilk, except for the fact that Citizen Way is singing about God instead of girls.

Largely, they were entertaining, pleasant to look at and they did work in their hit “How Sweet the Sound” which is getting lots of play on both K-Love and Air One and was a huge hit with the audience who joyously sang along.

They chatted a little in between songs, giving the audience a little history of their band and sharing a little testimony of their faith. It was pleasant banter and didn’t overpower or distract from their music.

Then came the comedian. (I use the phrase comedian only because that is what he called himself. I would have called him a preacher with a slightly above average joke repertoire.)

I wasn’t expecting a comedy set but when Tony Wolf took the stage I just assumed, “Ok, they must have a huge set change, nice of them to entertain the audience for a few.” Um, no.

Wolf opened with a few jokes, which quickly spiraled into his childhood sob story and soon morphed into a guilt fest for Compassion International children’s ministry. For about 15 to 20 minutes he played heavily on the audience’s emotions with stories of children in Tijuana with no clean water to drink and no clothes to wear.

I’m sorry, a charity whose president, Wesley K. Stafford, reported an income of $289,370 and bonuses of $41,040 on his 2011 IRS form 990, and whose own website reports that only 83.6 cents of every dollar actually helps a child, doesn’t need my dollar-a-day. We live in West Virginia where, according to the 2011 U.S. Census data, more than half of the state’s children live in households at or below the poverty line.

Shame on you, MercyMe. I didn’t come to your concert to be berated. My charitable dollars can be spent at home.

After an uncomfortable silence as volunteers walked the aisles holding up picture packets of impoverished children and waiting for audience members to raise their hands and commit to a sponsorship, Wolf finally dismissed the audience for a 15-minute intermission, during which he encouraged everyone to visit Compassion International’s table in the lobby.

Finally, MercyMe took the stage.

I like several of their songs, and they’ve been around for about 20 years, so they get lots of air time on the national Christian radio stations. I was hyped expecting to hear some of my favorites and a few songs off the latest album “Welcome to the New.”

The band took the stage with a very sleek ‘80s feel. Lots of flashing colored lights bounced off the musicians and the audience (I could do without the continuous spotlight to the eyes, but I was still trying to be a good sport.)

Lead singer, Bart Millard, and his bandmates were dressed in sleek black suits with matching silver ties. It gave them a very Robert Palmer “Addicted to Love” feel. They opened with “Gotta Let it Go,” an upbeat song off their latest release. When the song ended, Millard explained that they were going to play the entire new album. OK, that’s a little strange. When a band has been around as long as MercyMe and has as many hits as they do, the audience expects to hear some favorites, not just the new releases.

As the night wore on the band did work in a few of their old standards like “Beautiful” and “I Can Only Imagine.” But it was a very long evening made infinitely longer by Millard’s conspicuous inability to move from song to song without a lengthy diatribe in between.

Don’t misunderstand me, I like it when an artist gives you a little history of the song. But if your song is three minutes long, there shouldn’t be a five-minute micro-sermon in between every other song. I understand that music is their ministry, but please, let music be your ministry and leave the preaching to the pulpit. I want to lose myself in the experience. I want to transcend this earthly plane in the melodies I know and love. I want to praise and worship with other like-minded people. I don’t want to continuously stop the flow to listen to what seemed to be part personal therapy session, part Sunday school lesson.

Share your testimony, share a little about the songs and then PLAY SOME MUSIC. That is what everyone is there to hear. The concert dragged on past 11 p.m. Although the music was good and the stage show was tight, it was all overshadowed by the plodding, overreaching preachy style of Millard. I love you, guy. I love your songs. I understand when something is on your heart you need to share it, but remember, your fans came to hear you play.

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