It's a little unnerving when you have nonrefundable plane tickets to go to a destination that is forecasted to be hit by a hurricane or two while you're down there. Thankfully, with a little faith and prayer, when we arrived in Orlando, FL the afternoon before the launch of Rock The Universe 2008, it looked as though the storm was going to totally bypass Orlando. It's especially good news for the city's residents as well as all of those hoping for a fun time at another Rock The Universe.
We'd spent the earlier part of the day over at Islands Of Adventure before heading next door to Universal Studios for the main event (can I just say I'm kind of miffed that they closed that sweet restaurant that looked like it was in a huge tree trunk?!). The rain did still come during the day, even occasionally pouring, but mostly just misting throughout the day. If there's one downside to an outdoor festival being held in Orlando, it's the hyperactive and unpredictable weather. But once inside the gates of Universal Studios, the heavens were rather merciful towards the festival goers and we only had to fight some light rain in the late afternoon.
As usual, the gates opened at 4pm, with the festivities not kicking off until around 5:15 on both stages (The Yard and Hollywood). This year, they blocked off the space in front of both stages shortly before 5pm to keep the audience out (Why? Who knows...), so lines began forming around the gates and on the first day, a mad dash that included enthusiastic fans hopping over the barricades ensued once the word was given to allow people inside. It was kind of nuts on Friday night, especially, so it was surprising that they did it again on Saturday. Still, Rock The Universe got itself off to a rousing start with none other than Florida's own Group 1 Crew. The hip hop trio opened with a fan favorite from their self-titled album, "Love Is A Beautiful Thing," to get the crowd moving. Their energy was infectious, and with a full backup band accompanying them - complete with a horn section - it made for a standout performance. We had previously seen G1C down in Nashville twice for separate conventions, but at the time it was just the three of them playing to tracks instead of live music, and the live instruments this time around made a world of difference. This year, it seemed a few less bands were playing Rock The Universe, so this meant for longer sets for all of the acts. For an opening act, Group 1 Crew played a full fifteen-song set, performing tracks from both their debut and their brand new upcoming record, Ordinary Dreamers, including "Let It Roll," "Gimme That Funk," "Bring The Party To Life," "What Yo Name Is," "I See You," "(Everybody's Gotta) Song To Sing," "No Plan B," "Eye Contact," "Movin'," "Can't Go On," "Forgive Me," and "Keys To The Kingdom." And as if a full band wasn't enough, the Group invited a quartet of dancers to join them for a few songs as well. And one of the set's highlights included the performance of a rock-flavored hip hop song the trio wrote as a sports anthem that should be released as a single (like via iTunes) in the near future.
The longer set time also meant that groups like Skillet could offer a near headlining-length spot as well. These Rock The Universe favorites look forward to this event each year and this particular one was no exception. Performing their Comatose Tour set list, they opened with the title track from their latest release, Comatose, with their own violinist perched atop speaker stacks at the back of the stage. It's a wonderfully dramatic way to crack open their set and it only energized the anxious crowd even more. Skillet was clearly fired up and front man John Cooper didn't hesitate to reiterate their passion for the Rock The Universe festival, admitting they look forward to it each year. "Whispers In The Dark" followed, along with a few rock tracks from their previous record Collide, including that title track and the intense album opener, "Forsaken." The band pulled it back a bit for the slower rock ballad "The Older I Get," followed by the emotional "The Last Night," which Cooper prefaced as being about a conversation between someone who is contemplating taking their own life and God. "Better Than Drugs" preceded the pop-punk influenced "Those Nights," and another rock ballad, "Yours To Hold," followed. When the opening violin to "Rebirthing" filled the air, the audience got rather rowdy, which only continued into the next song, "Obsession." Cooper then took a moment to share about how he got into rock music and then discovered Christian rock through the band Petra, candidly telling the story of how his mother rejected the idea of Christian rock until she experienced Petra live herself (which Cooper said turned her into a huge fan of the rock legends). With that, the rock group dug out an oldie, "Angels Fall Down," for a moment of worship, before closing with "Savior."
One downside to the stage setups is that you're likely to have a pretty good spot in the audience if you stay at one stage for the entire night. It's tough to bounce back and forth between the two stages and NOT be stuck in the back of the audience for both of them. We had wanted to see some of Relient K's set over at The Yard Stage (AKA "main" stage), but decided that our chances of seeing the band again this Fall were greater than seeing the Newsboys elsewhere, so we kept our "sweet spot" over in the Hollywood audience instead of hopping between shows. My wife held our spot after Skillet so I could get us some liquid refreshments (keep in mind -- Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Frappucinos are heaven in a plastic cup at Rock The Universe!), but the audience tightened up by the time I returned, even before speaker AJ Styles was about to go on. Keep this in mind, folks: leaving the audience and trying to return to your spot where someone is waiting for you is NOT a recommended course of action. I learned this as I tried to return to my wife, only to be met with rather angry attendees who were very, very displeased with my attempt to wade through the crowd to find her (sorry!). But anyway, as Newsboys headlined the Hollywood Stage, Switchfoot was closing out The Yard, another band we were torn about missing, but we knew we'd be catching live in concert the following Saturday back home anyway on The Music Builds Tour.
Before the Newsboys were to perform, guitarist Paul Colman warmed up the audience with just his pipes and an acoustic to get the crowd going. And after what felt like too long of a wait (between speaker AJ Styles and the start of the Newsboys' actual set), Christian music's favorite Australians (and one American) emerged to the catchy sounds of "Wherever We Go." Much of what the night had in store for Newsboys fans (and fans-to-be) was the same from last year's wildly popular "GO Tour." So while anyone who saw that set could mostly predict the band's every move, the foursome left room for a couple of surprises. "The Mission" followed, along with "Something Beautiful," before breaking the string of newer songs with an overlong cover of the renowned Matt Redman original, "Blessed Be Your Name," a song the band has been covering relentlessly for years. While they do a good job on it, they drag it out much too long, and considering that their set barely contains many songs at all, it'd be nice to have them trade that one in for something of their own. "He Reigns" was next, with the delightful addition of "Stay Strong" from their latest Greatest Hits installment (honestly, throwing "I Fought The La" in there too would have been a nice treat). As on the GO Tour, the band brought along their catwalk that protruded from the middle of the stage into the audience, which was often used by Colman and vocalist Peter Furler throughout the set. But at this portion of their show, all four members gathered in a circle, huddling around Jeff Frankenstein's keyboard, and along with an abbreviated message from Furler, the group performed a line or two from the choruses of a couple favorites, including "Not Ashamed," "Reality," "Love Liberty Disco," and "Amazing Love." Sadly, it was only the latter that got the most attention. The short pieces of fan favorites were not only mere teases, but were just a total of four song snippets. With as short as they were, there was no reason why they couldn't even drop in some "Spirit Thing," "God Is Not A Secret," "Million Pieces," Take Me To Your Leader," etc. But after they returned to the stage, the group launched into "Shine" and "Breakfast," two set staples that are likely to spark riots if omitted. For "Breakfast," the audience went ballistic, and a few fans even pulled out boxes of Captain Crunch and began hurling handfuls of cereal into the air. At one point, Furler snatched a bag from a fan, held it up with a mischievous grin spread across his face, and proceeded to try to toss Captain Crunch pieces at Colman who tried to catch them in his mouth (and failed miserably after several tries). With the close of "Breakfast," the band exited briefly, only to return for an encore. With "Your Love Is Better Than Life," jets of red, white, and blue confetti shot into the air and into the audience to rain down over the crowd. And after wrapping the song, Furler returned to the catwalk platform stage to duel with drummer Duncan Phillips who sat upon his throne of drums. The two seasoned drummers volleyed solos back and forth before the climactic moment when Phillips' set rose into the air at the same time that Furler's circular platform did. However, just as first-timers to the show might think Furler had won the crowd's hearts, Phillips' set began its inevitable tilt forward and rotated several times before stopping, with the drummer displaying his talents the entire time. With the completion of the competition, the band reassembled and the foursome closed with the worship anthem, "I Am Free." In the end, it was a spectacular set (as usual), but still, the absence of more classics was certainly felt.
We quickly made our way over to The Yard Stage where Switchfoot had already been well into their set. This year, instead of the stage facing the side of the main street as it leads into park, it was facing the direction of the traffic, making the side of the stage parallel with the main street. This ended up creating a great deal of congestion in the streets and at all of the attractions surrounding The Yard -- more so than previous years. Ironically, Switchfoot was playing an old fan favorite as we approached the stage, "Learning To Breathe," and continued with a merging of "We Are One Tonight" and "Shadow Proves The Sunshine," as well as "American Dream," before we decided to abandon the mayhem and meet some friends for coffee.
Last year's Rock The Universe was sorely missing the "Rock" it so boldly proclaims, with its lineup including contemporary giants like MercyMe and Casting Crowns as headliners (and tween performer Robert Pierre?). Thankfully, this year Rock The Universe certainly lived up more to its name as it boasted artists like Switchfoot, Relient K, Skillet, Third Day, Jars Of Clay, Jeremy Camp, This Beautiful Republic, Stellar Kart, and Newsboys -- even featuring Brian "Head" Welch, formerly of Korn, as a guest speaker. And after a strong opening day, it was pretty clear this year's RTU was going to rock.
Since we had spent all day at Islands Of Adventure the day before, we decided once again to devote all of Saturday to Universal Studios. The nice part about spending the day at Universal before the Rock The Universe events begin is, for one, you're likely to be treated to a soundcheck or two when you pass either of the stage areas. And there's plenty to do at the park -- riding the many attractions, catching a show from Beetlejuice or The Blues Brothers, browsing shops along the way, popping into one of the many places to grab a bite to eat (or a snack), or simply walking around and enjoying the sights. And with the weather on this particular day, it was definitely a nice day to just go for a walk. Of course we're all about the rides, so we made sure to hit several before the park opened to the Rock The Universe attendees, and Universal made a few stations around the park available for those who didn't want to have to leave the park to get their wristband for the day to be able to get one near one of the performance stages.
In the blazing Orlando sun, the Hollywood Stage opened on Saturday with Ohio rock act, This Beautiful Republic, who was still celebrating the recent release of their sophomore album, Perceptions. Quite appropriately, the rock quintet launched their set with the Perceptions album-opener, "Pain," to get the energy flowing. "Surrender Saved My Life" followed, along with a unique cover of Gnarls Barkley's "Does That Make Me Crazy." TBR was a nice addition to the RTU lineup despite being probably one of the lesser-knowns that played. Also, the band had some tremendous heat working against them and they pulled off a great set despite the temps. They continued to mix up cuts from both albums with "Right Now," "My God," "A Point Between Extremes," "Learning To Fall," "Casting Off," and "Last Second Chance" following. At this point, vocalist Ben Olin stopped to encourage some crowd participation for the next song. After complimenting the audience for having a good understanding of what to do at a rock concert (as opposed to some unfortunate shows before this one), he asked them to sing along with "No Turning Back," which produced just what the singer was looking for. With the sizeable audience screaming the chorus back to the band, Olin and company just got even more fired up, sadly just as their set was coming to a close with the fan favorite "Going Under."
We stayed put once again for the speaker, Brent Crowe, who we also heard speak last year, as he warmly shared of his testimony with the crowd again. While a lot of speakers at events like these tend to yell or shout or scream at their audience like some kind of motivational speaker, Crowe is considerably more delicate with his approach, delivering more of a heart-to-heart with his listeners.
And following Crowe, worship leaders Leeland stepped up to stir the hearts of Rock The Universe. Leeland is among the few worship bands to offer something fresh in their music, and their live show does a great job in capturing that. "Don't Go Away" followed, along with "Let It Out Now" and "Yes You Have." Front man Leeland Mooring paused several times to address the audience and share from his heart. He spoke about his upbringing in the church and with worship itself before leading the crowd in songs like "May Our Praise," "Tears Of The Saints," and the classic "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus." Mooring then shared about a personal experience when he had felt God speaking to him once, on a day off while shopping, to just look around him. He used this as the introduction to a song called "Stand Still," which had only been released on the Japanese version of their album Opposite Way. The acoustic ballad was a great live moment, so it's a shame that it wasn't made available in the States as well. A pair of title tracks were next, first with "Sound Of Melodies" and then "Opposite Way," before they closed their dozen-song set with the upbeat pair "Hey" and "Count Me In."
It was by far a difficult pill to swallow to realize we were missing Jars Of Clay perform over at The Yard. Jars began somewhere around the middle of Leeland's set, but by the time we made it to The Yard, we still got to hear them perform eleven songs. When we arrived, they were knee-deep in the Redemption Songs portion of the set with "God Will Lift Up Your Head" and "Nothing But The Blood." Last year, the Jars team was all dressed in cheesy athletic outfits. This year, the guys were much more stylish wearing all white, which seemed more fitting for their serious lyrical subject matter. From there, they mixed it up a bit between albums, performing "Mirrors & Smoke," "Love Song For A Savior," "Oh My God," and even "Frail!" "I Need You" was also a nice addition before the Jars guys debuted two brand new songs from their upcoming March, 2009 release. They then closed their set with "Dead Man" before being abruptly told their set was done. However, the band did come back out for one more song, and performed "Revolution" from their album The Eleventh Hour.
Next up, Brian "Head" Welch, formerly of Korn, stepped into the spotlight to share his personal testimony. Welch spoke candidly from his heart about how empty the fame and fortune that Korn brought him made him feel. Welch's story of redemption was a powerful one, and it was certainly a highlight of the evening.
Over at the Hollywood Stage, Jeremy Camp was headlining, while Atlanta rock band Third Day brought a close to The Yard Stage. We opted for Third Day's set and it was great to hear the band perform more songs from their latest album, Revelation, than we'd heard on their Spring tour. But just like with that tour, the band opened with "Tunnel," "I Got A Feeling," and "RockStar" to get the fans riled up with familiar material. But then they jumped into the opening track from Revelation, "This Is Who I Am," a solid, rocking anthem that sounds fantastic in the Third Day set lineup. After a short, sort of interlude version of "Cry Out To Jesus," the band played the infectious hit single "Call My Name" before Mark Lee tore up a guitar solo into the Rich Mullins classic, "Creed." Another rocker from Revelation, "Slow Down," followed, with an updated version of the oldie "Thief," before front man Mac Powell picked up his acoustic for "I've Always Loved You" from their album Time. At this point, bassist Tai Anderson addressed the crowd to share about the band's USO Tour experience earlier this year where they learned about a fallen soldier while they were in Iraq. Anderson shared that they have since gotten to know the family of that fallen soldier and expressed the band's support for the troops, something that inspired the next song, "Always Be True." "I Believe" was next, followed by Powell talking about the new album and its meaning before launching into the title track, "Revelation" to close out their set. However, an encore was expected and they returned for rocker "The Otherside" and the worshipful "Show Me Your Glory." Then a couple of festival founders joined the band on stage to lead the RTU festival in a candlelighting service, and Third Day closed Rock The Universe 2008 worshipfully with "God Of Wonders."
Rock The Universe 2008 offered one of the strongest artist lineups in recent memory. And when all was said and done, and another RTU was in the bag, we were happy we made the trip to Orlando for another Rock The Universe at Universal Studios. The festival is still a great way to end your summer, and a great way to tie music and vacation together without having to rough it, camping out in the middle of nowhere for a full week (like a few other festivals). Here's to hoping Rock The Universe 2009 is just as good... or better!-- John DiBiase, 9/11/08
Group 1 Crew: Friday, Hollywood Stage
Skillet: Friday, Hollywood Stage
AJ Styles: Friday, Hollywood Stage
Newsboys: Friday, Hollywood Stage
This Beautiful Republic: Saturday, Hollywood Stage
Brent Crowe: Saturday, Hollywood Stage
Leeland: Saturday, Hollywood Stage
Jars Of Clay: Saturday, The Yard Stage
Third Day: Saturday, The Yard Stage
Candlelighting Service: Saturday, The Yard Stage
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