Stryper at Ignite Fest 2011 Review

I promised my buddy Mark a review of the Stryper performance I attended this past weekend. Instead of just sending it to him, I figured I’d post it out there for anyone else who may be interested.

I’ve always liked upbeat music. I was also raised in a Christian household. It’s probably no surprise, then, that at some point in my early teen years I discovered Christian rock music. I remember my very first casette tape from a Christian band was “Not of this World” by Petra. I soon added “Back to the Street” which was the first album for legendary Petra vocalist John Schlitt. I’m surprised I didn’t wear these two audio tapes out completely with the amount of usage each one received in my vintage 80’s “boom box”. However, when I moved to a new school in 1989 I was introduced (by the aforementioned Mark) to the monsters of Christian Rock themselves, the yellow and black attack, hair/guitar band extraordinaire: Stryper.

As usual, I was a few years behind Stryper’s real heyday, which occured between the years of 1984-1987 and probably peaked with the release of “To Hell with the Devil” in 1986. Consequently, Stryper wasn’t doing much touring when I was discovering their brand of Christian rock around 1989-1992 or so. Subsequently, I never had the opportunity to see them perform live. So, when I finally got the opportunity this past weekend to see them (along with many of the newer bands for whom Stryper has “paved the way”) at Ignite Fest, I couldn’t have been happier. It was icing on an already very sweet desert-type food item.

Let me just pause here to say that, despite my fandom, my expectations for the show were not extremely high for a couple of reasons. First, prior to the festival, a rumor popped up that Stryper would not play the show despite being advertised on the promotional materials. Anybody who has followed the band knows that they have had some tumultuous times (the infamous “artistic differences” was cited as the reason for their 1992 break-up), and at times the band seems more driven by their egos than by their music. On a more personal note, prior to the show I wandered over the the Stryper merchandise tent to see what was available. The shirts were priced at $25, which is pricey but not unheard of. However there were only 3 designs available – and one was cut for girls. The “North American Tour” T had a blank spot on the back where the touring cities and dates are supposed to be printed, which seemed odd to me. Usually, when you buy a tour shirt you like to see your “city” on the back somewhere. The kicker, however, was when I glanced down at the table and saw the “cash only” sign. It seemed to me that Stryper had completely mailed it in. Did they really want to be here at all? Thus, I was hoping that they’d put more effort into the performance than they had into their merch tent.

The venue was a minor-league baseball stadium. The stage was set in center field. It was a T-shaped stage with a short catwalk in the center. I was standing (it was standing only, no seats) about 8 rows back from the end of the catwalk just off-center to the left. The first thing I noticed was that during the setup and sound check, many of the other bands including Red, Thousand Foot Krutch, Seventh Day Slumber and headliners Skillet, had gathered at the back of the stage for handshakes and photos with the members of Stryper. I thought this spoke volumes for the kind of respect the younger acts had for Michael Sweet and co. There they were, well-established artists who were used to being posed with, practically giddy at the thought of meeting these trail-blazers of rock. It was neat to see.

Stryper opened with “Sing Along Song” which I thought was kind of an odd choice. Although the vocals in the song are great, I’ve always thought it was one of the weaker songs they recorded, lyrically. It’s also only mildly upbeat. Most bands will open with a bang to get the audience going, but “Sing Along” is more of a melodic kumbaya of sorts.

As far as the music goes, it sounded superb. This was the original lineup that included Michael Sweet, Timothy Gaines, Oz Fox and Robert Sweet and they have been playing together for nearly 30 years. They didn’t miss a beat the entire performance which is saying something for a bunch of guys nearing (or at…Oz and Robert) 50 years of age. Jonathan Chu, who is the violinist currently touring with Skillet and was backstage during the Stryper show, appropriately tweeted “Stryper. The real deal. No clicks, tracks, mumbo jumbo. Just straight up Rock and Roll and Jesus.” As expected, Stryper gave us a guitar solo right in the middle of every song, just as it used to be.

Stryper did a nice job with their set after the opening song. They started in 1984 with “Loud N’ Clear” which was the first song off of “The Yellow and Black Attack”, their first album. Next, they moved to 1985 with “Reach Out” which is where their trademark harmonies really shined. These guys can still sing together. Next, they played several songs from their 1986 Platinum album “To Hell With the Devil”, including (from memory) “Free”, “The Way” and “More than a Man”. Side note: THWTD remains the #1 selling Christian metal album of all time.

Stryper also performed the song “Soldiers Under Command” using an arrangement I’d never heard before in which Michael Sweet sang the first verse and chorus a cappella  and at about 1/2 tempo prior to the guitars kicking in and starting the song completely over. It worked as a change of pace.

The mood of the band surprised me a little bit. Maybe due to the impression I’ve had of the band since their 90’s breakup, I’d pictured a group of very serious rockers who expected every aspect of their show (from stage setup to exit time) to be perfect. This was partially validated when Michael Sweet made an offhand comment about the days of music videos on MTV being gone forever. This is probably a very accurate statement, but his tone of voice almost sounded cynical and (a word he used) pessimistic. I’m not sure why Stryper would be upset about music videos disappearing from traditional television. Anybody who’s researched or followed “OK Go’s” rise to fame knows that music videos are still alive and well, albeit in a different form, namely YouTube.

However, apart from that comment the band seemed to enjoy themselves on stage. My favorite exchange happened between Michael Sweet and Oz Fox: “They’re starting to get my sense of humor, Oz!”…”No, they’re starting to recognize the senility!” to which Oz quickly added “We’re all getting there!”. I think Michael took it in stride, but Oz wasn’t taking any chances.

By the way, who’s bright idea was it to bounce beach balls around during concerts? What an annoying tradition. Many of us in the crowd held our breath as some smart-alec in the crowd “spiked” one at Michael Sweet on the catwalk as he was trying to sing the a capella part of Soldiers. Michael somehow contorted his 48 year old body “Matrix-style” to avoid being hit in the face. He stopped singing and at least ten of us in the crowd just knew he was going to halt the set right there, walk off and never make another stop in Illinois ever again. Luckily, Michael proved our impressions wrong and kept his cool, simply responding with “That almost took me out, man.  That would have been crazy!”. Cudos to you on that one, Michael Sweet. I doubt that I would have been so generous in that circumstance.

For all the good music, though, Stryper had a problem. They kept trying to get the crowd into the show, which was really an uphill battle for a couple of reasons. First, this was day three of a three day festival where fans had already endured 2 days of heat indicies approaching 100 and very high humidity. Adding to that, this was “rock day” at the festival and the earlier acts had included some of the heaviest, fastest names in rock including Flatfoot 56, Platform 86, Thousand Foot Krutch and Seventh Day Slumber. More than one circle pit was formed and at least one “straw fight” was incited by a band. You know, a straw fight…when crazy people pick up the straw that was put on the ground to absorb moisture and fling it at one another….maybe you have to be from the midwest. Regardless, this crowd was tired.

Secondly, 80 percent of the folks in the crowd were not even born when “To Hell With the Devil” was released! The ten of us who held our breath during the beach ball incident were the only ones who knew the words to the songs, and there weren’t enough of us to be heard over the music. The young people who were at the show were there mostly out of curiosity or respect, not because they knew the songs. I wish we could have given Stryper a better showing but I’ve got to believe that they’re going to run into this kind of thing over and over. It’s just a new era. That’s what happens when you disappear for 25 years due to “artistic differences”.

The highlight of the evening came on the final song. As Michael Sweet looked over towards the side of the stage, one of the event hands started giving him the cut signal, which he promptly ignored and told the audience that they were going to do one more song. He looked backstage and called out John Cooper of Skillet as a guest vocalist for “To Hell with the Devil”. John came out but graciously declined the opportunity, which he later (during the Skillet performance) attributed to not being able to “come within 2 octaves of Michael Sweet”. However as Michael looked around for anybody to bring out, two members of Seventh Day Slumber bravely stepped in front of the mic. As the guitar riffs began, these two guys started looking at each other as if to say: “you go first…no, you…no, I insist” but when the time came for the first lyric, one of the guys stepped up and completely nailed it. Michael came over to share the mic during the chorus but stepped away each time a new verse was underway. This guy (I’m not familiar with the band, so sadly I can’t give credit where it’s due) was hitting every note….and I mean EVERY note, including the last one, which if you’re familiar with the song you know is not for your average American Idol contestant. During the line “there’s a better wayyyyyyyy!!!!” he earned an approving nod and grin from Michael Sweet who was playing his guitar off to stage right. Sweet knows that he can’t hit that note anymore, but seemed to be having fun listening to someone who can. Every time one of those signature Stryper high notes was hit by this virtual unknown, the exhausted crowd went nuts. It was a fitting way to end, and left everybody with a positive vibe. In our eyes, Stryper had changed from being ego-centric rock gods to being willing to share the stage and even concede the mic, both figuratively and literally, to the next generation of Christian rockers.

Most impressively, before relinquishing the stage, Michael Sweet stepped back onto the catwalk and led the entire field, fan and band, in a closing prayer. I think they were the only band in three days to end their set in that way.

In all, I probably saw more impressive bands this weekend. All of the headliners (Newsboys, Switchfoot and Skillet) put on their usual fantastic performances. But seeing Stryper, for the first and most likely last time on a live stage, was an incredibly memorable experience.

So, there you go, Mark, and….world. Hope you enjoyed the rundown.

Edit: Some kind soul has posted the entire 30 minute set on YouTube. Check it out and see how good my memory is.

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