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story.lead_photo.caption Rend Collective

It's half past noon on Jan. 18, and Newsboys United lead singer Michael Tait is in Grand Rapids, Mich., rolling through his typical routine on this year's version of the Winter Jam Spectacular.

His day began a couple of hours ago with some reading and praying, and he is now calling curious press types to talk about his group's headlining stint on this year's Spectacular, the long-running Christian music tour that stops Saturday at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock. The 2019 bill also includes American Idol finalist and Grammy nominee Danny Gokey; Idol alumna and Grammy-winner Mandisa; Rend Collective of Northern Ireland; Seether drummer Jennifer Ledger and others.

A pre-Jam party will feature Dan Bremnes, Ty Brasel, Adam Agee and Manic Drive.

This year's Jam, which will hit 44 cities before concluding March 31 in Cleveland, is the first time the tour will be presented in the round, with performers doing their thing on a 360-degree stage.

The rest of Tait's pre-show routine will include a workout with keyboardist and Newsboys musical director Jeff Frankenstein, a meet-and-greet with VIPs and then it's time to hit the stage.

And don't think that he's not enjoying his fellow performers while waiting to perform.

"I usually watch the show," he says. "My goal on the first night of the Winter Jam tour is always to watch the whole show and see what's going on. But a lot of times on tour, I'm watching from the side of the stage."

After Newsboys have closed the evening, there are autograph signings and meeting fans before winding down around 2 a.m.

"It's definitely a full day," Tait says.

This is the sixth time the 51-year-old singer has made the Winter Jam trek, not only with Newsboys, but also with his eponymous solo band.

"It's a blast. It's like having family around you all day, every day," Tait says about touring with multiple acts. "There's so much great music and diversity. For the fans, I always say that if you don't like a song, just wait a minute, it'll change. And it's just $15. Where are you going to get a show this great for $15? Nowhere."

In the late '80s, Tait formed DC Talk with high school buddy Toby "Toby Mac" McKeehan and Kevin Max Smith, creating a contemporary Christian sound that combined elements of rock, pop and hip-hop. Jesus Freak, the group's 1995 album, was a crossover success, breaking Billboard's Top 40 chart.

The band went on hiatus in the early 2000s as the members recorded solo work and over the years have briefly reunited for special events.

In 2009, Tait joined Newsboys.

Winter Jam

Newsboys United, Danny Gokey, Mandisa, Rend Collective, Ledger, NewSong, Hollyn, Adam Agee, Dan Bremnes, Ty Brasel, Manic Drive

5 p.m. Saturday, pre-Jam party; 6 p.m. main show, Verizon Arena, 1 Arena Way, North Little Rock

Admission: $15 donation at the door

(501) 975-9000

The group, which also consists of Frankenstein, Duncan Phillips and Jody Davis, has been touring under the Newsboys United moniker after the return of former members Peter Furler and Phil Joel. And there is new music on the way in the form of a self-titled album, the band's first release since 2016's Love Riot.

"'Greatness of Our God' is the single, and the album comes out May 10," Tait says. "It will be 10 all-new songs, and we're really excited about it because we haven't had a record in a long time."

Expect to hear two new songs during the band's Verizon Arena set, he says.

Tait and his fellow Newsboys also have film credits on their resumes. Their 11th album (and second with Tait), 2011's God's Not Dead, was the gateway to their participation in the 2014 movie God's Not Dead.

"It was definitely a surprise," Tait says about reaction to the film. "When a movie comes out that big -- 8 million people saw it in three weeks -- it would take us 20 years to play to that many people. And millions more have seen it since then. Before that I would get stopped a lot in airports and malls. Now I get stopped all the time. It's cool because it's a point of connection with humans and I love it."

That connection stretches across political affiliations, although Tait isn't much for politics: "I try to avoid those conversations. I often say that people put so much faith in our government and our leaders, but our faith has to be in God and God alone."

From the stage each night, Tait combines President Barack Obama's "Yes We Can" slogan with another one made popular by Donald Trump.

"I tell the audience, 'Yes, we can make America great again, if we put Jesus back into America again.' People go crazy. They love it. We have to answer to Jesus, not Trump or Obama."

While Tait is a Jam veteran, Rend Collective, the soulful outfit from Bangor, Northern Ireland, is making its first appearance on the tour.

Collective member Ali Gilkeson, wife of founder Gareth Gilkeson, also calls from Grand Rapids.

"What's amazing about your nation is the diversity," the 32-year-old says of touring America. "We feel very welcome here, which is so lovely. A lot of the people we talk to have Irish heritage, or they have family in Ireland, or their dog is from Ireland. We just love it."

Rend Collective was started by drummer Gareth Gilkeson as Rend Collective Experiment in 2002. Organic Family Hymnal, the band's debut, was released in 2010. Good News, the band's eighth album, came out a year ago.

Ali and Gareth, who have three children, got married the same year they recorded Organic Family Hymnal.

"We love recording albums and being creative, but I think in terms of America, the album that broke us here was Campfire," she says of the 2013 release that featured stripped down, acoustic-flavored versions of earlier songs.

Good News is an expansive record, with anthems perfect for arenas.

"We like to do a big release every two or three years," she says. "We love for that to be about everything we love about music, and every way you can express yourself and be creative and fun."

The band nourishes its two sides -- arena-ready jams, and campfire singalongs.

"We want to write songs for church," Gilkeson says. "Sometimes you hear a big-sounding album and it might be overwhelming to an everyday worship leader who might think, how can I do that in church? But you can play these songs with just an acoustic. You don't need all the razzmatazz."

In a nod to praise leaders looking for tunes to play, the band helpfully provides chords and lyrics to many of its songs at

Gilkeson, who plays keyboards, percussion and sings, grew up in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, and played piano.

She says she was more involved as a church youth leader than a praise band member: "I was busy doing other parts of church, but all the boys [in Rend Collective] played in praise bands and secular bands in clubs and pubs."

It was the idea of mixing secular and sacred sounds that really got Rend Collective going.

Gilkeson says, "What we were singing in the pubs on Saturday night was not relating at all to what was being sung on Sunday mornings, and we wanted to bridge that gap. What we sometimes say is that a Rend Collective concert is what you get in an Irish pub on Saturday night and at church on Sunday morning."

Danny Gokey

Style on 02/05/2019

Print Headline: Jamming for Jesus: Christian music’s Winter Jam Spectacular returns to Verizon Arena with Newboys United, more


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