Rich Copley: 2011 was a year of survival for Ichthus

Chris Tomlin, the final main stage act of the 2011 Ichthus Festival, is set to return for 2012.
Chris Tomlin, the final main stage act of the 2011 Ichthus Festival, is set to return for 2012.

It came awfully close, but 2011 will not go down as the year the Ichthus Festival died.

The 42nd edition of the Christian pop music festival in Wilmore ended with an announcement from the main stage that the event and its parent organization, Ichthus Ministries, were in financial dire straits and needed to raise money quickly, or the event and its related endeavors might be history.

That would have brought to an end the longest-running contemporary Christian music festival in the nation, one that just 10 years earlier had enjoyed unprecedented growth.

Changes in the music industry and the downturn in the economy took a toll on Ichthus, which had been operating at a loss since 2006, when the event was moved on the calendar from April to June.

The ideal scenario to the festival staff and board was to find a buyer for Icthus' 110-acre property off U.S. 68 who would allow the festival to continue there while taking on the expenses of property maintenance. That didn't happen, but chief executive Mark Vermilion said sending out the S.O.S. generated enough support for the event to go on in 2012. It has announced a big lineup for June, including Chris Tomlin, Red, TobyMac, Phil Keaggy, Brian "Head" Welch and Family Force Five. Ichthus still is looking for property buyers and other means of stabilizing its finances.

More information and tickets are available at the Ichthus Web site,, and Saturday is the last day before a price increase, including full-event tickets from $69 to $76.

Plenty of choices in '11

It has been a while since Ichthus was the only game in town for Christian pop events. Two other marquee events are the WinterJam concert at Rupp Arena in March and Quest Community Church's Questapalooza, which celebrated its fifth anniversary on Labor Day weekend with a return appearance by one of its favorite acts, Third Day.

WinterJam will have its fifth edition at Rupp Arena on March 10, led by Skillet, which was on the bill the first time the event came to the home of the Kentucky Wildcats in 2008. Last year, 16,431 people turned out to see Red, Newsboys and others, according to event organizers.

In addition to those festivals, Lexington Christian pop fans enjoyed other marquee events this year, including a Rupp Arena stand by Casting Crowns.

Lend an ear

They might not be the bread and butter of the music business the way they once were, but recordings remain the essential way for artists to get their music heard. The Christian music business is in a continuing evolution, with many artists trying to keep feet simultaneously in the faith-based and mainstream markets, and purely Christian music focusing more on the praise-and-worship genre.

Here are a few of the albums that caught my ear in the past year:

Gungor, Ghosts Upon the Earth. One of my complaints about contemporary praise-and-worship music is that it gets repetitive. Just before leaving for Christmas vacation, I received an advance copy of a praise-and-worship disc from an all-star group that looks like another collection of retreads. It's great if church congregations want to sing these songs over and over again, but really, how many recordings of How Great Is Our God do we need?

Enough complaining. Now for some praise. Atmospheric, inventive and introspective, Michael Gungor's worship collective is the freshest thing to come out of the Christian music market in years. A key is that although it is based at Bloom, a Denver church, Gungor is not making sing-along records. It is creating experiences. Much like the David Crowder Band, its albums are beginning-to-end experiences. Ghosts Upon the Earth illustrates that beautifully taking the listener on a sonic and emotional journey.

Red, Until We Have Face. Speaking of bands with feet in both markets, Red had an explosive start to 2011, with a powerful third album that earned it spots on mainstream showcases, notably Conan, and set the stage for a scorching (literally) live show last summer at Ichthus.

Switchfoot, Vice Verses. The thinking person's Christian rock band bested itself again with a meditation on modern society and the challenges people of faith face in our culture and in ourselves. Vice Verses was a visceral charge on first listen and intellectually satisfying as the lyrics sank in.

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