Smalltown Poets at Hurstbourne Baptist

By Victoria Moon

The world of Christian music is much more complicated than it used to be. There was a time when Christian music was written solely for those within the Church, or as an evangelical tool, and its themes were clearly delineated as Christian themes. The music was cautious and, more often than not, catered to the conservatism of the Church.

Since the beginnings of Contemporary Christian Music in the mid-1960's, however, there has been a change in the cultural landscape of the Church and along with it CCM. After the term "Generation X" started to be thrown around, the CCM market has been desperate to fill a distinct void their music left in the hearts of Gen-X'ers. The industry has started to sign bands that do not necessarily follow the old CCM rules.

Smalltown Poets is just such a band, a mix of the secular and Christian, a melding of two worlds that somehow rings more true than the often too-perfect world of other CCM counterparts. Their show on September 4 at Hurstbourne Baptist Church started with an empty stage, a spotlight off the stage highlighting the audience, and a recording of Andy Griffith singing the theme song to "The Andy Griffith Show." As part of the raised-on-television generation ambiguously known as "X," as well as being a huge Andy Griffith fan, I was intrigued by this clever introduction.

When the band took the stage after the Andy Griffith tribute (and rabid CCM fans would note than three of the band members made up the short-lived alternative band Villanelle), I was more than ready to hear if they could live up to the promise of their fun introduction, which, for the most part, they did. Lead vocalist Michael Johnston has the presence and vocal range to front this band ably.

He did a spectacular job of living up to the vocal demands of a 1970's flashback medley that incorporated the classics "Don't Bring Me Down," "More Than A Feeling," "Joy To The World," and "I Just Want To Celebrate." Bassist Miguel DeJesus added the perfect funky note that gave these classics a 1990's edge.

If there is any complaint at all about this band, it would be that their originals are not yet as memorable as their cover tunes. Their show felt like a college of Gen-X pieces - old TV sitcoms, loud guitar rock, a David Wilcox monologue, and hints of the modern rock bands Toad the Wet Sprocket and the Gin Blossoms.

This was okay, but more of the band's originality needed to show through. This is a very young band, formed last year and signed soon after. The huge amount of musical talent combined with the obvious creative talents of Michael Johnston and keyboardist Danny Stephens should soon forge a strong musical identity in their songs.

The band's strengths lie mainly in their ability to seamlessly incorporate the secular with the Christian, creating a cultural montage that seems fresh and young while grappling with the age-old issues of Christianity. Somehow this approach made their music more human, more readily accessible than CCM can sometimes be, and their audience - mostly teenagers- ate up the band's music and message with a spoon.

Smalltown Poets presented a superior show and showcased the new and welcome direction of CCM that mixes the human with the divine, modern culture with the old, old story. This will definitely a band to keep one's eye on.