Christmas tours are now a common theme, but how often do they actually get us to truly reflect on the meaning of the holidays? This year, two of contemporary Christian music's most popular acts, Third Day and Jars of Clay, are touring together with a holiday focus and shining a new light on the meaning of Christmas. In anticipation of the tour making a stop in Tulsa this weekend, I found time to catch up with both bands to briefly discuss the tour and their respective albums.
When I caught up with Third Day drummer David Carr before the week before the tour started, he commented, "This is definitely the most interesting way to support a new album. We started working on it over 18 months ago and we're just now touring for it the following November.
"We've spent the past couple of days rehearsing, and we don't really know them (the songs). I mean, we know them in our heads, but are trying to remember the arrangements," he continued. "Brad (Avery, guitarist) is the only one keenly aware of what's going on. He's been mouthing out the changes."
When discussing the album, Christmas Offerings, and the pending tour, Carr shared, "There's something about the Christmas season that allows you to be cheesy. There's so much to make fun of, but it's truly expressing a time of tradition.
"We wanted to do a Christmas album, but also encourage people to reflect on the meaning and importance of the holiday," he continued. "It's not just about the birth of Christ, although that's the biggest part, it's also about family and relationships.
"We said early on 'We don't want to do the typical thing with this album.' We didn't do any gimmicky stuff. We wanted it to be light hearted, but with some depth."
What resulted was one of last year's two best Christmas albums, a blend of a few new Christmas songs and classic carols that were updated without drastically changing the arrangements. The execution presented the age-old carols a fresh and contemporary feel while retaining the tradition of the season. It also refocused the band's attention to the lyrics, which can be easy to overlook on songs that we can all recite without thinking.
"On 'O Holy Night,' Mac (Powell) was singing and said 'Wow, these lyrics are amazing,'" Carr explained. "After digging into them, these songs have taken on a new meaning for us."
After fairly quiet year, relative to the band's normal activity and touring, Carr shared that Third Day is ready to get out and tour again. The band has a new album nearly finished and is looking forward to being back on radio and on the road in 2008. For now, however, the members are enjoying the revisiting the music of the holidays.
A Modern Christmas
Whereas Third Day's album retained the basic structures of most of its holiday classics, Jars of Clay was more liberal in its treatment of those songs with Christmas Songs, often with stunning results. Fortunately, I was able to catch up with keyboardist Charlie Lowell just after the first couple of shows, to discuss Jars' take on the holidays.
When explaining the band's approach to the new album, Lowell explained, "We did have a conversation early on, just after Christmas last year, where we discussed what we listened to and why. Was it for the ambiance, was it mood music, or did we really listen to the words?
"We found that we all really liked the more nostalgic music and wanted to bring those textures and sounds to the album," he continued. "We wanted to give it a nostalgic quality and a kind of dreamy feel."
In the end, Jars of Clay stepped well outside of the typical sounds of most Christmas albums and stretched itself musically. Not only did they cover Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" with an aplomb that shows off the band's ever-present Beatle-esque qualities, the group also branched out. A cover of Vince Giraldi's "Christmastime is Here" sees the group step into a loungey, French pop-type vibe, while "Hibernation Day" stretched the band even further, countering Dan Haseltine's McCartney-like vocals against a jazzy arrangement.
According to Lowell, "We've never done that in Jars. It was kind scary and healthy at the same time because it pulled us out of our element."
The true standout of the album, however, is "O, Little Town of Bethlehem," a song that Lowell said he thought would be "more pretty and acoustic, but it kind of took a dark turn."
"We had a friend that rearranged it in college and we sang it. We just twisted it a little further and it gave it a darker skin," Lowell explained. "When thinking about all that was going on around Christ's birth, it was probably some really dark times. When you spin it like that, you have to listen and think about the words a little more."
When discussing the current holiday tour, Lowell shared that the band is enjoying having a whole new body of music to perform and is playing roughly 50 minutes of Christmas music. "It feels really fresh and all new, but not quite second nature yet."
"It's been fun to challenge the audience a bit," he continued. "We throw around terms like peace on earth and goodwill to man, but you turn on the news and there is no peace on earth and very little goodwill among men.
"If we really believe these things are not just words, then we have to claim this peace and live in it despite the violence and wars," Lowell elaborated. "I look around and see a lot of fighting and hatred with man. It forces you to sit in it and think about it. Jesus is the peace in the midst of the chaos."
Along with the Christmas Songs album, Jars of Clay also released a new book, Peace is Here: Christmas Reflections. "It's kind of our way of talking more about the things we're talking about in concert," Lowell told me. "'Peace on earth.' Do we really mean it and live in it? What does that mean? It's also our reflections on Christmas, with some daily short readings."
Third Day and Jars of Clay will be in town this Saturday night, December 15, performing on the Rhema Campus. Tickets are still available and are $31 at Mardels, Banc Café, and KXOJ studios at the Citiplex Towers.
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