Oct. 27--Chris Tomlin did the old "how many first timers? how many veterans?" audience poll at the start of his Milwaukee Theatre show Saturday night. Not surprisingly, the majority of cheers in the largely full theater were from the newbies. Tomlin's "Burning Lights," released in January, was just the fourth contemporary Christian music album ever to top the Billboard charts.
What's interesting is that, unlike fellow chart-topping Christian artist TobyMac, Tomlin went No. 1 while being far more explicit about God. Saturday's concert was even halted for a 40-minute sermon by Tomlin's pastor (and the head of his record label) Louie Giglio.
Tomlin clearly puts the message first above the music, and so a large number of Saturday's songs were words of praise set to an inspirational soft rock beat, the verses simple enough to be sung along during a first listen, although the lyrics were projected on a video screen anyway just to be sure. The result was widespread unison, a crowd (whom, at one point, Tomlin called a church) singing as one, arms outstretched toward the heavens, just as Tomlin intended.
But the songs as performed by Tomlin's unadventurous band were also largely repetitious, nakedly drawn from the "How Great Is Our God" template that became such a popular song in thousands of churches across the country. A noted exception was "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)," benefiting from familiar, eternal, moving melody taken from the traditional song that inspired it. Tomlin's "remake" was a highlight Saturday, just as it was when the Band Perry covered it at the State Fair last year.
To his credit, Tomlin did inject some variety, largely from his "Burning Lights" material. He started up "Lay Me Down" as a singalong tutorial from his acoustic guitar (jokingly, but truthfully, saying the song's "oh oh ohs" were for the people who couldn't sing). Once the song hit the chorus with the full band, it sounded like Mumford & Sons, then for the climax transformed into a U2-esque sentimental rocker, the sound of Tomlin's comfort zone.
"Awake My Soul" had a video cameo from Christian rapper Lecrae, offering a verse as a hip-hop sermon. Opener, and closer, "God's Great Dance Floor" jumped to a bouncy synth beat, and Tomlin too literally bounced around, spun around, kicked his legs and threw up his arms. His passion, even during the more subdued, straightforward songs, was sincere and unwavering.
After all, it's one thing to talk about the joy of loving God and being loved by God. But it means so much more to show it.
--Loved that Tomlin's crowd-pumping, merch-and-social-media-pushing opener went by the stage name DJ Promote.
--For the big finish, Tomlin and his band tossed a number of gigantic beach balls into the crowd. Pro: Free souvenirs. Con: Tough to squeeze into a car. Pro: Fun when you hit one. Con: Not much fun when one hits you...in the head.
--As I scribbled down some notes in the "praise pit," where I was taking pictures of the show, Tomlin walked up to me, bent down, looked at what I was writing and gave a little nod of approval -- although I seriously doubt he could decipher my incredibly messy handwriting.
1. "God's Great Dance Floor"
2. "I Will Follow"
3. "Lay Me Down"
4. "Awake My Soul"
6. "Holy is the Lord"
7. "I Will Rise"
8. "White Flag"
9. "10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)"
10. "Our God"
11. "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)"
12. "Whom Shall I Fear (God of Angel Armies)"
13. "How Great Is Our God"
14. "God of this City"
15. "God's Great Dance Floor"
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