Not Afraid to Faith the Music

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On his current tour, Michael W. Smith is choosing the cross over the crossover.

Smith is the leading man in Christian-pop, second only to Amy Grant in crossover Top 40 appeal to secular audiences, and his concert Friday night at the Pond of Anaheim had all the trappings of a big, mainstream-pop arena show. There was the tight backing band, the elaborate lighting effects, the now de rigueur satellite stage planted in the middle of the hall for intimacy's sake, and the big screen backdrop for video images, used to illustrate and at times interact with the real-time performance.

But the intent clearly was to gather the flock, not to expand Smith's audience demographic.

Playing to a house that was about two-thirds filled, Smith offered a well-conceived, two-hour evangelical experience.

His medium, as ever, was the polished pop ballad and the moderately rocking anthem. The set included his two early-'90s pop crossover hits, "Place in This World" and "I Will Be Here for You."

But more than on his past two visits to Orange County--even the back-to-basics acoustic show he played in a church in Anaheim in 1994--Smith's focus was on his religious message. It was telling that the climactic anthem, "I'll Lead You Home," (the title track of his latest album), turned into an on-screen tribute to the Rev. Billy Graham.

The video visuals had a lot to do with making this a show primarily for believers.

A secular fan might be drawn to Smith's voice--a nasal, thin but tuneful one that compares with Jackson Browne's--and to his almost unerring knack for catchy melodies. Such a fan might finesse the Christian message: one of the advantages of the unillustrated song is the option of ignoring the lyrics, and in any case, Smith's songs usually make their point without baldly preachy sloganeering.

This time, though, Smith's purpose evidently was to offer not just a song, but also an indelible religious image.

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The show's opening emphasized a world in turmoil, with Christian faith as the way out. Smith first appeared on the satellite stage. Holding a frozen pose as he spun around and around on its rotating surface, shrouded in clouds of fog, he called to mind an imperiled Han Solo at the cliffhanger ending of "The Empire Strikes Back."

As he sang the opening number, "Cry for Love," Smith's runway back to the main stage turned into a treadmill that prevented him from reaching his destination. Meanwhile, the video screen behind the main stage showed a small boy reaching out for help, to no avail.

In "Breakdown," which depicts America--"one nation over God"--falling toward chaos, the screen gave us a demonic-looking Uncle Sam, an image one of those government-hating fringe-militia types might have dreamed up for a leaflet. The song ended with the flag in proper, Christian hands, where it presumably belongs, as Smith labored, like a Marine on Iwo Jima, to plant it firmly.

"Someday," another number depicting society in turmoil and in need of divine rescue, capped the sequence with some respectable Rolling Stones-like cranking by the band, and an apt video illustration that depicted painter Smith adding a clarifying touch--a big, white cross--to a previously formless, abstract design.

Segment 2 established Smith as a nice, approachable Everyman. He sat at a piano at center ring, showed snapshots of his wife and five kids on the screen, and played a couple of warm ballads. Various band members gathered 'round to sing with him, which helped avoid the draggy sameness of ballad sequences in his past O.C. concerts.

The closing stretch drove home core Christian messages, starting with Smith's most effective rocker, "Secret Ambition," which deals with Jesus' mission to turn the world upside down.

The spiritually otherwise engaged might in the past have simply bopped to its big beat; in this staging, they got a message writ too large to ignore--a film sequence reenacting parts of the Gospel story complete with haughty Pharisees, cruel Roman soldiers and a crucifixion scene with close-ups of bloody wounds.

Smith ended with a nice sequence of songs celebratory, confrontational ("Cross of Gold," which challenges superficial expressions of faith) and, in the end, comforting. During "I'll Lead You Home," the abandoned kid of the opening song reappeared on screen, now smiling and holding a cross.

Secular audiences have a long history of embracing individual songs of religious declaration--from the Doobie Brothers' version of "Jesus Is Just Alright" to George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," which introduced Hindu prayer to the hit parade. Given his Adonis looks and golden ear for tunes, the pop mainstream figures to be within Smith's reach if he's so inclined.

But this concert was pretty much for the faithful only, an exercise in evangelism, with music and video turned to a religious purpose in a way so deftly conceived and presented that Billy Graham himself might have been impressed.

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Second-billed Jars of Clay is a young band of Christian alternative-rockers who are riding higher on the Billboard pop albums chart right now than Smith is. In a brief set, Jars came off like an acoustic-rock equivalent of Live, the ultra-sincere band from Pennsylvania that was one of last year's big alterna-rock success stories.

Jars of Clay is potentially a far more appealing band than Live. Its melodies are more consistently strong, and its sound is insinuating--featuring a nice weave of two acoustic guitars, warm or piercing organ gusts, and fervent lead vocals surrounded by rich harmonies.

While the band's perspective is Christian throughout on its debut album, the view is inward and personal.

Singer Dan Haseltine is too busy trying to set right his own precarious spiritual equilibrium to concern himself with preaching to anybody else.

At the Pond, this rookie band was in way over its head; it hasn't yet learned the tricks of projecting its intimate sound in a big arena. But in a club, Jars of Clay might well be able to cast a spell with its layered sound and to draw a crowd deeply into its world of inner struggle.

Three Crosses' opening set showed why the divinity inspired Les Paul and Leo Fender to perfect the electric guitar: to prevent would-be heartland rockers like these from sounding woefully underarmed. The band's instrumental lineup of organ, drums and blandly strummed acoustic guitar needed something to put some heft and variety into the sound. Hiring a bassist and a lead guitarist would be a start.

Singer Stephen Pasch went in for simple exhortations in his lyrics and between-song patter. "Let the devil know that he has no business here," he cried at one point. It wasn't Satan, but a hideous echo bouncing off the mass of unoccupied far seats, that bedeviled all three acts on the bill.

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