Relient K, TobyMac, Casting Crowns, MercyMe, Skillet, & more|
9/7 - 9/8/07, at Universal Studios in Orlando, FL
After visiting two previous Rock The Universe events at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, it's tough to not start
looking forward to the festival every year. We'd previously attended in 2003 and were drawn back particularly by the presence
of Audio Adrenaline last year as they wrapped up their career. But a few standout acts in this year's lineup, as well as
the allure of "getting away" for a weekend, drew us back to Orlando for Rock The Universe 07.
This year ordering tickets ahead of time gave event-goers the opportunity to purchase their RTU tickets and get 2-Day, 2-Park
tickets in addition to the event. Previously, the event doesn't begin until 4PM at Universal Studios, so RTU-goers would have to pay
full price for separate tickets to Islands Of Adventure (the other Universal park next door) if they wanted to experience that park as well.
We decided to arrive in Orlando early enough to make Friday an all-day fling at Islands before heading to Universal Studios for
the start of Rock The Universe that evening.
Although the gates become open to the RTU attendees at 4:00, the shows don't start right away - giving people a chance to either
ride a favorite ride before shows begin, grab a bite to eat, or at least have a little time cushion to get to the first show and grab a spot
in front of the stage before its start. Grits kicked off Rock The Universe 07 on the Hollywood Stage, a smaller setup than
the main, Yard Stage, and is located in front of a fast food establishment called Mel's Diner. The audience was a bit thin for the two rappers, but the pair still put
on an enthusiastic hip hop show for the fans present. At 6:30 over at The Yard Stage, which attendees pass as they walk through
the park shortly after entering, Family Force 5 was the inaugural act for the main stage. As we walked over following
a quick and exciting detour onto the "Revenge of the Mummy" ride, the sounds of their set opener "I Love You To Death" was drifting through the park streets.
As the stage came into view and the sound became clearer, so did the fact that Family Force 5 was not quite their usual selves. Frontman
and chief vocalist Solomon "Soul Glow Activatur" Olds was absent due to the recent birth of his first child, so his brother and
FF5 bassist Joshua "Fatty" Olds had traded his instrument for the mic, with TobyMac bassist Todd E. Funk (aka "Zodiac") filling
in for him. The band's entire set was still its usual frenzy of fun and energy, but Solomon's absence was undoubtedly felt. There's
a sense of organized mayhem when the band plays in its full glory, but without "Soul Glow," there just seemed to be a bit of apprehension among
the rest of the members - and understandably so. But given that their ringleader wasn't in attendance, the guys - who I will always
say put on one of the best live shows you can see today - still put forth a valiant effort. And their set still consisted
of their usual staples, with "Replace Me," "Drama Queen," "Kountry Gentleman," "Love Addict," "Numb," and "Earthquake" all making
the list. And when the thematically sound "Earthquake" (that's a Universal ride reference for those unfamiliar with the Orlando
theme park) came to a close, the band came back for an encore with "Supersonic" and "Whatcha Gonna Do With It," their newest song
which features all of the guys dancing and singing along to a track (sans their instruments). Before leaving the stage, Fatty
offered a heartfelt prayer for the people of RTU for a great way to end their segment.
Between Family Force 5 and the unfortunate simultaneous 7:45PM shows from Jars Of Clay and Hawk Nelson, shark victim Bethany Hamilton
shared her testimony on the main stage. And when it came time to decide who best to see following her message, we chose Jars Of
Clay at the Yard Stage first. They had already begun their opener "Good Monsters" by the time we'd arrived back at The Yard,
and it was a shocker to anyone who hadn't heard of their summer fest garb to find the six-piece alt pop/rock group clad in gym shorts
and polo tees. Looking like a band of retro joggers (Jars of Clay is "JOC"... get it? Yeah, it's a stretch), it was fun to see that
the guys still had a sense of humor, but it definitely clashed with the mood of some of their songs. By the time "Work" followed
as the second song, the more serious rock anthem of loneliness just didn't have as poignant an impact being received from
the brightly-colored, short-shorts-wearing Jars guys. Nevertheless, Jars Of Clay put on a fantastic set, and I found myself getting
lost in the music. "Work" was immediately followed up by "God Will Lift Up Your Head," and "Nothing But The Blood" for a rousing
segment of upbeat worship, and then the guys moved right into "Take Me Higher" from their latest album Good Monsters. In the twelve-plus
years I've seen the band live - since the first time when they opened for PFR before their debut had even come out - this marked the first
time I'd ever seen the guys live in a festival setting, and it was fun to experience the different feel.
Unfortunately, it was at this point that my wife and I decided it may be best to head back to the Hollywood Stage to catch some
of Hawk Nelson's set before it finished. We didn't know how long either band would play, so considering the possibilities
of just 10-song sets, it seemed ideal to leave after five songs from Jars. We arrived at the Hollywood Stage as the Hawk boys were at
the kazoo playing part of their song "Hello" from their sophomore album Smile, It's The End Of The World. Vocalist Jason Dunn
brought his girlfriend on stage to play the little plastic instrument along with him, and the song was soon followed by a cover of
"Just What I Needed" by The Cars. The pop/punk band's popular anthem "California" followed, before Dunn paused for a serious introduction
to the suicide-themed ballad "Zero." The portion of their set that we saw just seemed to breeze by as the band closed with the raucous
"Bring 'Em Out," and we exited the audience to look for a friend of ours. While we stood by the merch stands located to the side of the Hollywood Stage,
we soon heard an acoustic version of "36 Days" drift over as Hawk delivered a humble encore. As we mingled around the Hollywood Stage for
some time after their set, I was disappointed to note that Jars Of Clay kept on playing long after Hawk's conclusion, and I wished I'd known
they would play so long beforehand so I could have made it back to The Yard for some of it. Even from where we were by the Hollywood
Stage, I recognized the subtle hints of recent set Jars staples like "Dead Man," "Love Me," their cover of INXS' "Don't Change,"
"Flood," and their closer "Light Gives Heat."
There was a substantial break in time between Hawk Nelson's set and MercyMe's at 9:45. But at The Yard, a pair of pop/worship acts -
Echoing Angels and John Waller - preceded the main stage closer, Casting Crowns. The night's headliners had suddenly gone from different
brands of rock to straight-up contemporary and pop, not leaving much to choose from if you're not a big fan of Christian pop radio. We
sat with a couple friends in the Universal Starbucks near the Hollywood Stage to unwind a bit before catching a couple of minutes of
the headliners before calling it a night. When we arrived back at the Hollywood Stage, MercyMe was performing a cover of Johnny Cash's
"Won't Back Down." I was in awe of how thin the audience was for this popular act. But the band put on a strong performance, and after
"Bring The Rain," the band launched into an updated version of "I Can Only Imagine" and we soon headed to The Yard to catch a little of
the night's main event.
I was even more in shock of the massive crowd gathered in front of The Yard Stage. The sold-out Rock The Universe audience seemed to
be mostly gathered there for Casting Crowns. It was near impossible for us to get close enough to even really
see the stage (let alone take pictures), and after "We Are The Body" and "Does Anybody Hear Her," we decided there was no way to beat
the crowds and decided to visit a Universal Studio ride or two before the park closed at 1:00AM...
Since we had spent all day at Islands Of Adventure the day before, we decided it was time to devote all of Saturday to Universal
Studios. Our goal? Visit as many of the park's attractions before the event's start. How'd we do? Not too shabby if I do say so myself...
For a late lunch/ early dinner we hit up the Hard Rock Cafe around 3PM, and as were about to leave sometime after 4PM, we were surprised to
find the beautiful and sunny Orlando day had become a torrential downpour. We waited for it to subside a bit, closer to 5PM, and
made our way through a massive line at the entrance to get inside. As soon as we walked through the gate, the skies opened up again, and
Amy and I dashed into the first store inside the park for cover. TIP: bring ponchos to Rock The Universe! Last year, it had rained quite
heavily too, so we wanted to be a bit more prepared this year. But the rain didn't let up for our trip to The Hollywood Stage for
The Afters. The rain delayed the show, and we had to stand around as the stage's emcee, Craig, tried to kill
some time. But after some setbacks, when the rain stopped and the sun came back out, The Afters plugged in and proceeded to perform, opening
with the catchy "Until The World" before launching into "Someday" and a brand new one, "Never Going Back To OK." They prefaced one
of The Afters' more classic tunes, "You," by saying it was one the band had written while working together at a Starbucks. The soft ballad
was followed by another new one, "Ocean Wide," a heartbreaking song inspired by a picture-perfect family whose husband surprisingly walked
out on them one day. A new rocker entitled "Tonight" was next, with "Love Lead Me On" and one last new track, "Keeping Me Alive"
preceding the band's most recognizable song - and biggest hit - "Beautiful Love" to close out their set. Although most of the audience
watched the band sopping wet, it was well worth it.
Skillet was scheduled for 7:15PM, and things were delayed a bit with speaker Brent Crowe coming before them
to speak briefly and funnyman Daren Streblow as well, who left us all in stitches. There aren't too many genuinely
funny Christian comedians, but Streblow truly surprised us. Just as Skillet finally got to play, it began to rain again - and hard too -
but they kept on playing. Opening with "Whispers In The Dark," the hard rock band performed mostly newer songs from their latest
two records (Comatose and Collide), continuing with "Forsaken," "Better Than Drugs," "The Last Night," and
"Collide." The latter two were given especially extended treatments, with guitarist extraordinaire Ben Kasaica getting a chance to
exhibit his incredible talents. "The Older I Get" was next, with the enthusiastically received "Rebirthing" firing up the audience
before "Obsession" and "Comatose" followed. Frontman John Cooper shared his excitement for playing Rock The Universe every year -
admittedly his favorite venue to play. Due to Skillet's visible excitement and energy, the band put on what was easily one of their
best shows I'd seen from them to date. After Cooper told the story of a recent illness Kasaica has suffered from, they launched into
the softer "Yours To Hold," and we decided to catch the finale of TobyMac's set over at The Yard.
On our way over to The Yard, we could hear TobyMac's signature "Old School" medley which, upon our reaching the stage had just
finished. And with an explosion of energy, Toby and his team broke into the dc Talk original, "Jesus Freak." The entourage wrapped up
the song and exited the stage, but returned inevitably for an encore with the hit single, "Made To Love" from his latest project,
Portable Sounds. Toby paused a bit to share
about our purpose for loving Christ despite ourselves, and concluded the pop tune. To end their set, they played "Extreme Days"
breaking into a frenzy on stage in the joy-inspiring way that can only be achieved by a TobyMac set.
With Toby's exodus from the stage, it was coffee time again, and when we soon returned to The Yard once more, teenage pop vocalist
Robert Pierre was performing. Completely out of place as a headlining main stage act, Pierre wasn't exactly a
well thought-out warm up act for Relient K. But a prolonged delay followed, and instead of a 9:30PM start for the band, Relient K
didn't begin until an hour later. The alt rock/pop punk fivesome kicked off their set with "Who I Am Hates Who I've Been" and
"High Of 75" from their standout album Mmhmm and proceeded to perform the newer "Devastation and Reform" before dipping
further back into the past for the appropriately themed "Chapstick, Chapped Lips, and Things Like Chemistry."
Matt Thiessen's love song for his girlfriend "The Best Thing" followed, along with "Life After Death and Taxes" and a cover
of Tears For Fears' "Head Over Heels" which meshed right into "In Love With The 80s." It seemed much more appropriate to have a band
like Relient K finishing out the evening than Friday's picks for headliners, but for those wanting a softer, more adult contemporary
concert choice, Jeremy Camp was performing at The Yard Stage during RK (although, honestly, due to the delays in Relient's set, he could
have been finished by the time Relient K even began, given his slotted 9:15PM start time). And after Relient K's hit single
"Must Have Done Something Right," frontman Matt Thiessen shared openly about the post-Creation East bus fire the band suffered
and how he's overcome the anger and disappointment that followed, giving it over to thankfulness that no one had been injured (despite
the loss of gear and such). The aptly chosen "Up and Up" ensued, along with the worshipful "Getting Into You" and emotional "Forgiven."
To wrap up their set, the band then ripped into "Which To Bury, Us or the Hatchet?" and then bowed out with "Let It All Out." Of course,
an encore is expected, and Thiessen greeted the fans by reminding them that they hadn't played their "most ridiculous song yet."
With that, they performed "Sadie Hawkins Dance" to an uproarious reception, and even invited a fan to join them on stage to play
guitar along with them. As they began another standout hit, "Be My Escape," guitarist Matt Hoopes started too early and Thiessen
found pleasure in teasing the fellow Matt about the blunder. Finally, the evening of music concluded with the band's performance of
"I So Hate Consequences," thus bringing Rock The Universe to an end. Immediately, the audience began to clear out, despite a candlelighting
ceremony being on the bill for the night. It was tough to tell whether the crowd didn't know it was coming or if they were just was eager to beat
the rush and leave for the night, but it was unfortunate that they weren't sticking around longer.
Rock The Universe '07 was another year of great music within the fun-filled theme park of Universal Studios. While Disney's rival
celebration Night Of Joy was taking place at Magic Kingdom the same nights as Rock The Universe, there seemed to be plenty of
lineup competition between the two as Night Of Joy had nabbed artists like Third Day, Sanctus Real, and Flyleaf -- all bands that
would better fit under the title of "Rock The Universe," while crowd-drawers like Casting Crowns and MercyMe seemed to be more of the
kinds of bands to fit into Night Of Joy's contemporary format. Regardless, Rock The Universe was as diverse this year as ever, offering
pop, hip hop, crunk rock, hard rock, and a mix of many of those throughout the length of the event. While crowd control may remain the
fest's biggest hangup, there's still an abundance of things to do and music to choose from while at this attraction. So if you're looking
for options for planning a late Summer vacation next year but would also like to take in some live music, you can't go wrong with a
setup like Universal Studios Orlando's Rock The Universe.
Visit our iTunes Podcast
page for a video montage of highlights from Rock The Universe '07!
-- John DiBiase, 9/12/07