AtlantaFest is an annual "Christian music festival" held in mid-June at Stone Mountain, GA. This year, Holly and I attended for our third time. In 2010, we went for one day of the festival to see one of our favorite bands, Tenth Avenue North, perform. In 2011, we attended three of the four days. The lineup that year was outstanding with Switchfoot, Sanctus Real, Seventh Day Slumber, Disciple, Casting Crowns and Reilly—one of our favorite less-well-known bands—all playing, among many others.
We took a break for the past two years as the lineup wasn’t compelling enough for us to attend. And in 2014, we returned, attending Wednesday through Friday. This year’s lineup included Switchfoot, Red, Thousand Foot Krutch (TFK), Matthew West, Rush of Fools and Matt Maher. We were excited about the festival this year and it did not disappoint.
There were numerous things to like about this year's festival. Here are some of my top highlights.
The Dual-stage Layout
This was the first time the festival used a second stage in the main field area (see the map below). In years past, less-well-known bands played under a covered pavillion which was probably about 3/4 of a mile from the main field area. The dual stage setup was clearly better for festival attendees due to less back-and-forth travel and more comfortable seating (the pavillion only had park benches available), as well as for the artists as their attendance was significantly greater than with the previous setup.
Here's a shot of the smaller second stage. Notice the ropes lining off sections of the field. I'll talk more about this later. (Click the photos to open a full-size image.)
Another side benefit of the second stage was that it enabled some timing changes which we really appreciated. For example, in years past, the less-well-known artists would begin performing at the "back 40" pavillion at 10:00 AM, continuing until about 3:00 PM. This year, however, artists began performing at 2:00 PM and alternated between the two stages throughout the evening. This gave attendees plenty of time to take care of morning activities such as running errands, getting breakfast or visiting Stone Mountain park prior to the festival activities beginning. Then, once the festival started, it was essentially non-stop action until 10:30 or 11:00 PM. These changes were great and I hope they stick with them in future years.
Without question, Switchfoot was our favorite artist performance of the week. In fact, I don't know that we would have attended had Switchfoot not been playing. This was our fourth time to see Switchfoot in concert and they simply get better every time. When we were last at AtlantaFest in 2011, Switchfoot played the first night of the festival. Unfortunately, their set got cut short due to a serious thunderstorm that wouldn't go away. At first, when it was just raining monsooning, Switchfoot kept playing and we all stood there under our umbrellas getting drenched. But then, when the lightning started, they shut it down.
By the way, if you haven't seen this video I shot of "Meant to Live," it'll give you an idea of the crazy weather we had that night.
This year, I decided to just enjoy the show instead of recording video. Holly and I did snap a number of pictures, though. Here's some of my favorites.
I like this next one, despite being a bit blurry, because it somewhat captures Jon Foreman's contagious smile and frequent crowd interaction. The sunglasses on his head belonged to someone in the first row. At one point, Jon walked out on top of the crowd as he sang one of the songs. As he made his way back to the stage, he passed within arm's reach of us. Switchfoot excels at creating crowd participation and engagement. It's always apparent that they are having fun and really want to be there with you sharing those moments together.
Definitely the highlight of their excellent performance was Switchfoot playing "Where I Belong," which is my absolute favorite Switchfoot song. Prior to playing the song, Jon saw a fan's flag which he apparently asked the fan if he could have. He held the flag throughout the song and as the band took their customary post-performance bow, they held the flag in front of them. That was a pretty special moment.
We're so thankful to Switchfoot for the great time and memories over the years. In 2011, as their performance was being cut short, Jon promised they would be back and he honored that promise in just three years.
Thousand Foot Krutch
Our second favorite performance was easily Thousand Foot Krutch. Although they didn't headline the festival, they were absolutely the best performance on Thursday. Unfortunately, just before TFK played, I had to make an abrupt trip to the facilities as some Shane's Rib Shack pulled pork nachos with jalapeños I had eaten about an hour beforehand did not sit well on my stomach. In fact, I was pretty much sick all night Thursday night—a most unpleasant experience. I'll probably never eat BBQ nachos again. Thankfully, I was able to recover well enough to catch the last two-thirds of TFK's set from the field as opposed to listening from the restroom. However, we only captured a handful of photos from TFK's set.
I'll say more about this later, but TFK excelled at bringing the audience to life, something that seemed unusually difficult at this particular festival. There was a very high energy level during their performance. Lastly, I thought their setlist was good, mixing in some old tracks with newer stuff.
Prior to AtlantaFest 2014, I had not been a huge Matthew West fan. I have always admired and appreciated his songs' messages, however, and was excited to see him perform. He was excellent—very personable, walking around in the crowd, even eating some Cheetos from a little girl. And, as anticipated, Matthew's performance brought a deeper understanding of several of his songs. This was a highlight of the week for me. Matthew showed us shorter versions of the following two video clips and talked about some additional details.
Hello My Name Is
Who couldn't be touched by these beautiful songs and the stories that inspired them? Kudos to Matthew West for pursuing the idea of telling others' stories and reflecting the glory to GOD. I don't know Matthew, I've never met him, but I imagine he is quite the humble guy. His humility and love of people shine through and I'm thankful for what he's doing with the musical gifts GOD has given him.
Matt Maher was the first headline performer of the festival and he did a fantastic job. Matt was very effective at boosting the crowd's energy level and participation. He came across very transparent both with the things he said and the message within his songs. Going into the festival, Holly said she wasn't very excited about hearing Matt Maher because she didn't know any of his songs. I told her I was looking forward to his set and that she would recognize some of his songs once he played them. Sure enough, both of us knew all but about one or two of the songs Matt played.
In case you aren't familiar with Matt's music, here are a few of his hits.
Lord, I Need You
All The People Said Amen
Every time we go to a concert, we're looking to "discover" some new artists to add to our music collection and follow going forward. For us, this year, two previously-unknown artists stood out.
Love and The Outcome
The Canadian husband and wife duet of Love and The Outcome was a major highlight for Holly and me. They had a cool story and a great set. Both were in separate bands prior to their beginning dating. As best as I can recall, they said that after they married, they gave up their role in their respective bands and decided to form their own group. The name Love and The Outcome was a combination of parts of their individual groups. They wanted to get Love and The Outcome started so they took a leap of faith, sold everything they had—except his guitar and her Kitchen Aid mixer, they said—and for a period of time they lived out of their Volkswagen Jetta.
Whereas most performers on the smaller stage struggled to get strong crowd involvement, Love and The Outcome excelled. I look forward to checking out more of Love and The Outcome's music in the very near future.
In case you are unfamiliar, here's a video of their most popular song, "He Is With Us."
The Royal Royal
The other "new" band that we really enjoyed is also from Canada: The Royal Royal. They were pretty unique among the performers in that they were very scaled down. The band is comprised of two brothers and one of them sang and the other played the guitar and sang backup. The music purist in me appreciated their "no frills" approach. Even though their music was pretty mello and the crowd was fairly sparse (they played earlier in the day before lots of people arrived), I think they really connected with people. I know we really liked their performance.
While this picture is by no means award-winning, I liked how it captured the simplicity of their performance. All the other equipment on stage was covered up due to rain in the area and forecast.
Red headlined on Thursday night. I really like some of their music and they are a fun band to rock out to live. This was the third time we've seen Red in concert. Honestly, I was a little disappointed in their performance and I'm not entirely sure why. The crowd didn't seem all that into it for some reason. The lead guitarist and lead singer kept bumping into each other on the front of the "runway," which added some comedy to the night. Despite our feelings of it being a subpar performance, Red is still good enough to make my highlights list.
Here's a few photos from Red's performance.
This next one captures my sentiments fairly well.
More meaty messages
One pleasant surprise from this year was that many of the speakers had what I consider to be more substance to their message. There was the expected—and appropriate—mentioning of GOD's love, mercy, grace, forgiveness and salvation. But there were also calls to repentance, forgive others, cease living like the world, and mentions of the cost (along with the rewards) of discipleship. Some speakers really taught some stuff. This perceived difference was welcome and certainly substantial Scriptural messages are much needed among believers.
Unfortunately, not everything about the AtlantaFest 2014 messages should be praised. I'll say more about this later.
Laid back atmosphere
One of my favorite things about "Christian" concerts is that the atmosphere is so much different than "mainstream" events. From the ticket booth, to security checks, to vendors, to fellow attendees, to the speakers and even the bands, everything feels so much more relaxed and "as it should be." It's common for people sitting and standing nearby to strike up conversations. Friendliness is the norm rather than the exception. And while bands are given what I consider a proper, welcoming introduction, the artists themselves and those that introduce them make what appears to be a genuine, sincere effort to reflect glory to GOD. This is a welcome contrast from many mainstream artists which seem to revel and even solicit worship from their fans. Yes, I enjoy this difference very much.
It is common for individual band members to walk around anonymously among the crowd or back and forth to the sound booth throughout the festival. Artists often make themselves available for pre- or post-set meet-and-greets, autographs, photo opportunities, etc. Some even actively solicit people to come visit them at their merchant booth. People there are so accessible and it is really appreciated.
Unfortunately not everything about our AtlantaFest 2014 trip made the highlight reel. Here are four things that left room for improvement.
Chair placement restrictions
The crowd this year was uncharacteristically mello and I believe the new restrictions on chair placement was a significant contributor. Many of the attendees at AtlantaFest enjoy sitting in their chairs for a large portion of the day. After all, it is typically very hot—this year was an exception...thank you GOD—and people are out there for hours. In years past, people were allowed to place their chairs, blankets and coolers pretty much anywhere in the field, getting as close to the stage as they wanted. This year, standing and blankets only were allowed in the front 30 or 35 yards (just guessing) from the stage, pushing a significant percentage of the crowd backward, away from the action. I think the net result of this was that many bands struggled to get crowd participation and energy.
In all likelihood, adding the second stage to the main field area contributed to the chair restriction decision. By pushing the chairs back from both stages, it balanced more people between the main stage—which was straight ahead—and the smaller stage which was to our left. Had chair-sitters been allowed to move closer to the main stage, it would have placed the artists playing on the smaller stage at an even more difficult angle (think seven o'clock), negatively impacting their sets. Thankfully, there was a nice screen broadcasting the smaller stage performances straight ahead so we didn't have to get up and turn our chairs each time someone took one of the two stages.
I'm not sure I have a solution on how this could be resolved, other than to reduce the depth of the chair-restricted area. This is one thing I'd like to see changed for future years, but not at the expense of the removal of the second stage from the main area.
More of the 'partial gospel'
I've written a lot about salvation and incomplete gospels at chasingalion.com, so I'm not going into detail here. Any version of the "good news of Jesus" that leaves out what the Bible teaches about when and how our sins are washed away is, in reality, a tragedy because the result is individuals believing they have been forgiven, but just like Saul of Tarsus who believed but was still in his sins, these new believers have not had their sins washed away by calling on the name of the LORD in obedience (see Acts 22:16).
We knew before we bought our tickets last December that the partial gospel would be presented. Last time, it bothered me so deeply I was unable to enjoy myself as much. So this time, I prayed for GOD to help me to be able to still enjoy the good parts of the trip and, obviously, to do whatever I can to make a difference in helping people to see what He has spoken about receiving forgiveness of sins.
The Ongoing Concept
It feels kind of wrong to single out a band for a "bad" performance. Unfortunately, no AtlantaFest 2014 review would be fair without discussing The Ongoing Concept's set. Wow! I'm really struggling to find the appropriate words to describe their performance. Honestly, it was pretty uncomfortable—like watching a multi-car pileup unfold. There was some serious rage and antics unloaded. The lead singer began the set by standing in the field about 15 yards in front of the stage, yelling indiscernibly and running around like a crazy guy. Later, the guitar player and the base player accidentally collided as they were crashing around on stage. The lead singer attempted some form of stage dive, only there was no one there to catch him. I was worried he had really hurt himself. And at one point, the bass player suffered a nose bleed, probably from hitting himself with his guitar somehow. There was probably more screaming than singing. At one point, the guitar player announced that their last show was at a kid's birthday party and they made all the kids cry. Not good. I think they were the only performer who ended with less of a crowd than when they started.
Without question, the best part of The Ongoing Concept's performance was one of the band members playing The Peanuts theme song.
Mercifully, the madness only lasted about 40 minutes. Since we returned, I have listened to some of The Ongoing Concept's music on YouTube and it is much better than this performance—but I wouldn't buy what I've heard so far. Hopefully this serves as a learning and growing experience for them.
Arrows Before Bullets
Persistent "How’s everyone doing?"
Lastly, with the subdued crowd situation, naturally our "emcee" and some bands felt the need to try and pump everyone up. I get that. But the frequency of "How's everybody feeling, AtlantaFest?!?" and similar questions really, really got old. It got to the point that I could predict it consistently and, once you pick up on something like that, it's hard not to key in on it every time.
Overall, we had a great time and are thankful to all the people who put in long hours and hard work to pull off AtlantaFest each year. I'm very thankful for the opportunity it provides to hear such good, GOD-focused music in a beautiful setting like Stone Mountain Park. I fully expect us to return again in future years, as we have opportunity. Thanks for reading.