Fourteen thousand eager individuals wait for the band to begin playing. Chanting, clapping, cheering, the stage lights dim, the crowd jump to their feet and roar as the bright lights flash on. You thought the U2 tour had been cancelled? Which band could possibly stir up this much excitement? It's the Newsboys. They have been on the cover of Rolling Stone, nominated for four Grammy Awards, have a Billboard Music Award and six Gold Records. The catch? They are performing in front of 14,000 screaming Christians. In Toowoomba.
The Australian Gospel Music Festival (AGMF), Australia's number one event for youth, children and families, happens every Easter (14-16th April 2006) in the heart of Toowoomba and this year attracted over 40,000 people. 20,000 tickets were sold and an estimated 20,000 people attended free events held outside the festival gates.
Australian Christian rockers Newsboys headlined this year after US's Superchic[k] pulled out due to family problems. With more than 15 years of touring experience, Newsboys promised a monumental show and delivered. The band that self admittedly started playing "tuneless music" in Mooloolaba in the late 80s has developed to become one of the biggest bands in Christian music.
Lead singer Peter Furler admitted he has been anticipating playing at AGMF all year. "We're so excited and honoured to be playing at Australia's premier festival." You get the feeling the band has been yearning to return to Australia. "My parents have been coming to AGMF every year and call me up after and tell us we should play. And it's great to hear some Aussie accents in the crowd."
Event director Isaac Moody said securing Newsboys was a "huge coup" and set the bar high for the calibre of the 2007 international line up. "We've been working to bring Newsboys to our festival for several years now and after months of negotiation we are honoured to have Newsboys as headlining artists at AGMF 06."
Mr Moody said that AGMF experienced a 100% increase in ticket attendance this year and plans have been made to accommodate even more growth in 2007. "There is really no stopping this event. As long as we still have the infrastructure, we can continue to grow."
He indicated that the increase in ticket sales was probably due to the growing reputation of being Australia's largest "clean festival" and the elevated class of music acts. This year, headline artists included Channel 10's X-Factor winner Random, Hillsong's Reuben Morgan, Queensland's Soulframe, South Africa's MIC, US metal band Pillar, UK DJ Andy Hunter and Ireland's Robin Mark.
Grammy Award winning Australian singer-songwriter Rebecca St James arrived at Toowoomba fresh from hosting the American Gospel Music Association awards.
St James, in her second performance at AGMF wanted a message of purity to be delivered to the young girls of Australia.
St James excited the Toowoomba locals by revealing that during a two-month sabbatical, she applied for a job in a local coffee shop but was turned down because she was only available for five weeks.
US metal rockers Pillar look nothing like the stereotypical Christian band. Between the four of them, they have buffed arms, numerous tattoos, piercing and dreadlocks. Pillar attributes the growth of AGMF to the development of the Christian music industry. "For years Christian bands have been regurgitating secular music with a Jesus lyric. Nowadays, Christian bands standing out, being innovators." And they are gaining the attention of the secular music industry.
Gospel music big business
Gospel Music is the fastest growing sector of the Australian music industry, generating over $30 million annually and representing around 5.6% of total industry sales.
Australian Gospel Music Association President and Awards Coordinator Kelvin Fahey said, "In the past six years, the Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) has accredited 14 gold and platinum gospel awards, most of these being Australian artists."
Since its beginning in 1999, the AGMF has achieved significant growth, making it one of the fastest growing music festivals in Australia and attracting more than 20,000 visitors from outside the city to last year's festival.
With rapidly increasing crowd numbers, event organisers are racing to keep up with growth rate.
This year, organisers spent an extra $10-15,000 to put down additional flooring in the tent areas and watered down the grounds of Toowoomba's Queen's Park to combat the problem of dust.
Toowoomba City Council's Marketing and Tourism portfolio chair Cr Michelle Schneider said this decision was taken in the interests of public safety following the reporting of around 120 cases of respiratory problems due to excessive dust during the 2005 AGMF.
Cr Schneider said that Council had to take into consideration the benefit of AGMF to the local economy, estimated in 2005 to be about $6.9 million.
Punters also enjoyed the non-musical aspects of the festival with several mentioning an omnipresent 'vibe' at this year's celebration.
The vibe of it
Second year performer 5th Attempt played to a jam-packed tent on Easter Sunday. Steve Gray, bassist of the Queensland band, alluded to the 'vibe'.
"This year it was all about hot days and cold nights." Although during the event he suffered from hay fever (accentuated by the dust), he enjoyed being a local act amongst the mega stars of the Christian industry. "With the bigger named acts there are more stages to accommodate the bands and bigger crowds to see the local bands."
Sydney band The View (ex Anonymous Gift) also enjoyed the ubiquitous good vibrations. Front man Chris Collins said, "There is definitely a lot more going on this year; we are enjoying soaking up the vibe, and enjoying Toowoomba." He observed the excellent quality of the road signs that he assures will lead The View back to AGMF next year.
Hillsong wonder-boy Joel Houston pointed out that the festival is not all about the music. His goal was to encourage the crowd to "Encounter the living God." Hillsong's youth band "United Live" flew in and out on a chartered flight from Sydney, but not before performing to a packed out tent on Easter Saturday.
Mr Houston reiterated that AGMF is a non-denominational event that brings together people from all walks of life. He said attendees were "Here from all different churches and backgrounds, But [here] we are the church, this church." He encouraged festival goers to discover together what it means to be Christians and followers of Jesus.
Tessa Brown, 17, from the Gold Coast has seen the development of the festival since 2004. She said every year there was a different atmosphere to AGMF, but this year it was heightened.
"Every other year I've just tried to get out there and see as many bands as possible. This year I've spent a fair bit of time absorbing the atmosphere and chilling out in the tents."
Ms Brown considered Redlands' pop punk outfit Another Day Down her favourite band of AGMF 2006. "I enjoy watching the international acts, but it's great to see the development of the local acts that come year after year. When those bands are ready to rock, they fill the tents with a mosh pit of youth." As a seasoned attendee, she believed the beauty of AGMF was that you never know what to expect. "Each year the organisers find more ways to change the festival."
This year saw the inclusion of a Global Village that showcased an array of international food, a separation in Tent City of families and youth (allowing for more and less sleep respectively), extra performance tents, rides, and food vendors.
Fashions on parade
Fashions on the park were a much discussed aspect of AGMF with festival goers showing a resurgence in 80s fashion. Girls were sighted wearing polka dot shirts and high waisted belts in bright colours while sweatbands and aviator sunglasses while coloured skinny leg jeans were the choice for boys. Also celebrated was the return of the mullet for both genders.
Queensland's award winning fashion designer Grant Barker, 22, whose own designs (Minor Celebrity) are influenced by "80s rock culture crossed with Tokyo street fashion," said that younger people were seen to be embracing the secular festival trends of the Big Day Out, Livid and Splendour in the Grass. "Everyone is becoming bolder with their choices in fashion and haircuts, trying to stand out from the crowd." Popular t-shirt slogans were "I ♥JC" and "Jesus: Better than hash".
Nowhere were these fashion trends more prominent than at the Red Frog Colosseum where the 'Spam' crew from Brisbane's Citipointe COC, decked out in exercise gear, kept hundreds of festival goers entertained over the weekend. Stuart "Stu-Dog" Herbert, 19 and Andrew Taylor, 22 worked tirelessly to come up with ideas, determined to not let the schedule inhibit the good times.
Amongst the activities provided were sumo wrestling, skateboarding and break dancing competitions. A crowd favourite was early morning "church aerobics" which involved such moves as humble (on knees), adoration (jump up) and the Pentecostal jig (hoping from one foot to the other waving raised hands).
Mr Herbert explained the idea of the Red Frog Colosseum was to fill the gaps between bands with low-brow humour. "We are even giving away free haircuts; we specialise in the undercut, mullet and the bald-man hair cut."
However, the fun stopped every hour, on the hour, to hear a Bible passage from the New Testament, read by Johnny Cash.
Young people filled the bleachers at the Colosseum and there was barely standing room at times. Mr Herbert was initially surprised at the popularity of the Colosseum, but was quick to point out that his own personal motto is "Optimistic expectation equals exponential growth". He aims for a bigger Colosseum in 2007.
As the dust settles on another year at Queen's Park and 40,000 satisfied attendees drive home, one can only image what is in store for AGFM 2007. Numbers similar to that of a Billy Graham crusade? An appearance from Audio Adrenaline, Guy Sebastian, Cliff Richard or perhaps U2 themselves? Or perhaps there will just be more fun, a bigger Colosseum, a funky vibe and 90s fashion revival.
Read Journey's report on the 2007 AGMF HERE.
Read about SCAT performing at the AGMF Fancy Pants Ball 2007 HERE.
ANOTHER PUNTER'S VIEW:
By Rohan Salmond
Despite long, active nights and early rises, AGMF was a blast.
Although the flavour was distinctly Christian the festival was far from homogenous. Whatever the style of music there was a representative to be found at AGMF.
The styles of worship were many, varying from the familiar Hillsong worship team to the repetitive dance beats of DJ Andy Hunter. The headline artists all performed admirably but there were also gems to be found elsewhere, reinforcing the importance of music festivals such as this to encourage up-and-coming talent.
Many of the artists focused on worship and the Easter message although it was never too strong as to put off an outsider unfamiliar with Christian imagery.
AGMF was an accessible glimpse into the Christian music scene for non-believers and a fulfilling time with God over Easter for Christians of all denominations.