Hillsong United At Beacon Theatre, Sunday 5pm, June 18th, 2017, Reviewed
We don’t go to the Beacon Theatre Sunday early evening performance out of spite to mock at Pentecostal solemnity, to dismiss out of hand Hillsong United’s Christian Contemporary rock and roll. We don’t go to be converted either. The only interest whatsoever is the place where religion and rock and roll meet. Last week Hillsong United the band released their 15th album, Wonder and it is safe to save I’ve actively disliked every single one of them. A riff is not a song, a sentiment can’t cover up a bad song, and Christian Contemporary Music has exceedingly little great music. This is a problem with songwriters and arrangers and not with faith or what drives it. From English Hymns of the 1870s to Gospel soul of the 1950s and early 60s, a lot of glorious noise has been made in the name of Jesus, and not much of it by Hillsong United.
Hillsong Worship is an Australian based Christian music praise & worship group, formed at Hillsong Church in 1983, and they have grown and grown and grown. Their Sunday morning performances at Hammerstein Ballroom here, collect 7,000 believers at a shot and the leader co-head Pastor of Hillsong NYC is Joel Houston, his father is Frank Houston, Senior Pastor of Sydney Christian Life Centre, and Joel is a music guy. Sunday night he sang, along with three other lead singers including the estimable Taya Smith –who has a great haircut that makes her look like a cross between Delores O’Riordon and Tinkerbell. They opened in typical rock and roll three sure shots, the added flip was the lyrics transposed on a screen above the stage. The sound was really loud, I mean not for me and you, but I saw a father scurrying out with two tots the moment he figured it out. That was a difference, And a child singing in the audience while Joel preached was another big difference.
Ah yes, preaching. There was a fair amount and essentially it adds up to Jesus is good and we suck. Fair enough, I guess, the Pentecostal Church follow a strict reading of the Gospels. The Gospels mind, not the Bible, though Hillsong equate God’s power over us to god’s power over nature. For me, it is one of the things I enjoy most about Hillsong, the band keep their eyes not on just on humans but on everything. As the songs batter you down, the oceanic grace is built to overwhelm and if it was better it might just do so. By the time Hillsong are telling us to reach our arms up to God they are a mutation away from middle fingers in the air.
The audience are less extreme than the audience for Nick Cave but even so, these are Pentecostals, they aren’t speaking in tongues though they might be, and they are enrapt in the rapture which I would get if I could find any reason. Joel begins to preach, the old “he who is without sin” saw, and he handles it very well. The man can preach without throwing us in the deep end of the baptism pool, he has a good flow (he could rap if he wanted), and a soothing but brook no nonsense tone. The Church is not especially inclusive, they are pro-life in extremis, Hillsong New York has been around since 2010 and is extremely popular but it is a true mega-church, this is off Wikipedia: “Hillsong Church’s international offshoots include Hillsong Church London, Bermondsey (Greater London), Oxford, Guildford, Kent and also Newcastle in the United Kingdom, Hillsong Church Kiev in Ukraine, Hillsong South Africa has eight campuses, Hillsong Church Stockholm in Sweden and Hillsong NYC in New York and New Jersey, United States. Hillsong services are also held in Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Geneva, Konstanz, Düsseldorf, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Madrid, Copenhagen, and Moscow. In the Americas there are churches in Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, São Paulo and three locations in Phoenix, Arizona. There is also a Hillsong Bali in Indonesia”. Given the circumstances there have been surprisingly very little scandal associated with the Church. They were once accused of using the money for a charity to pay their employees and the accuser was forced to apologize in print. They are not copasetic with the Gay community and Hillsong Church leader Brian Houston – whose late father was an accused pedophile – says gay people are ‘welcome to worship’ but cannot hold leadership –according to the Daily Mail. Well, that’s the Church for you but nothing very shocking at all compared to the Vatican or Scientology. Hillsong appears to be an excellent and committed Church.
Sunday night, they stopped the proceedings to show film of Hillsong United at a refugee camp in Lebanon, meeting with, talking to, playing with the displaced teachers, lawyers, civil servants who left everything they had behind them and took their kids and fled Syria. Hillsong and One vision have formed a Christian Children’s Fund like charity where for $29.99 a month you can help refugees. In April of this year Hillsong performed in Israel, Dubai, and Bahrain, and more power to them: they move so far out of their westernized comfort zones the way the Pilgrims once did. And they reach to the young, the young may be deaf but that’s their problem not mine and not Hillsong’s and they embrace the hi-tech rock and swagger aspects and meet it with God. Only 30% of Christians go to Church and at least one reason is because Church doesn’t speak a current language to them. If you are going to preach, preach with a guitar in your arms.
This is all to the good except, this is a music review and the music drives me up the wall. It is like U2 if U2 were talentless hacks. It’s force feeding salvation through a synthesizer and the consistent lousiness of the songs pull me right out of any good feelings I might have for them. The difference between CCM and Gospel Music when it comes to pop is that CCM takes rock and spirits it backwards into spirituals, and Pop stole from Gospel and moved it forward towards secularism. CCM can’t get its bearings because it is about content and the content overwhelms the form. There are exceptions, Needtobreath, a Christian Americana rock band are excellent and P.O.D. , Christian-core, are awesome. Indeed, whenever hardcore merges with Christianity it is better than when pure classic rock does. The thing is hardcore’s form is so extreme, that once it is hardcore it can be about anything. An astonishingly great band called The Devil Wears Prada could be anything and still be great.
But not Hillsong United, they sink in their faith and it dismisses three of the most important aspects of rock (humor, sexiness, and groove) on the altar of, well, altars. Part of the problem became clearer in a show stopping “So Will I (100 Billion x),” in which they equate the Universe bowing to Jesus with the single person doing the same, and then they equal it to the billion times Jesus would sacrifice Himself on our behalves if necessary, and finally comes up with the best couplet they ever wrote: “You’re the One who never leaves the one behind…” That is very fine writing indeed and I went back to Wonder, their new album this was a release party for, and listened again. How did I miss it? I didn’t. It was botched in the production. If Hillsong is serious about their music, then get serious. Steve Lillywhite is looking for work, reach out to him. Get somebody to find the songs in the songs. Meanwhile, my Christian brothers and sisters could do a lot worse than joining Hillsong United.