By BRUCE DENNILL
Jesus Culture: South Africa Tour / Rhema Bible Church, Randburg, Johannesburg 7.5
Conceived as the spearhead of a youth movement, Jesus Culture (the band) has, like Hillsong United and others before them, become a staple of the worship music market, in terms of both songwriting – their contribution to the congregational canon is ever more impressive – and performance terms, setting high standards across the board. Founding member Kim Walker-Smith has a distinctive vocal style that both anchors the songs she sings and viscerally excites the listener, with the other lead vocalist, established solo singer-songwriter Chris McClarney, nearly matching her with his own expressive voice.
Interestingly the seven-piece band makes very little use of vocal harmonies, even from the two lead singers: when Walker-Smith is at the mic, McClarney steps back and vice versa. This is apparently an outcome of the worship leader training at Bethel Chapel in Reading, California, where the Jesus Culture band originated, allowing one leader to focus on the music and leading the technical aspects of the performance and the other to be available for any spiritual prompting that may occur during the meeting. It’s a somewhat disconcerting approach for those aware of the musical talent wattage on show, who may be expecting more of the gaps in the arrangements to be filled with extra harmonies.
That said, the live performance of those arrangements is superb, polished and controlled yet full of obvious heart and supple enough to accommodate extra repeats or gaps for reflection where the mood or audience response makes that appropriate. In that respect – and perhaps more so than many of their competition – Jesus Culture strike a good balance between their duelling roles as worship leaders and rock stars, impressing immensely but never overshadowing their stated purpose.
The strength of their song catalogue was made abundantly clear by the singing of rousing anthem Rooftops right near the beginning of the concert, the inclusion of more recent hit Fierce somewhere in the middle and the performance of McClarney’s powerful solo release Your Love Never Fails as part of the encore, along with a handful of other songs that are now part of the international fabric of worship music (despite the relatively short period for which the band has been releasing music).
Perhaps more impressively, though, the songs that were not as well known were just as easy to sing along to, given a verse’s worth of observation of the stage-side screens and the leading of the band. That’s a mark of not only songwriting excellence in the context of congregational worship – the lyrics are always accessible while often being profound – but also of the sensitivity to the atmosphere created in the room, allowing a capacity crowd of 6 000 people to land on the same emotional page.
Accomplished but approachable and confident while considerate: as things stand, Jesus Culture remain a formidable outfit in both musical and missional terms.