The Phantom Tollbooth announces that Petra is retiring at the end of this year. Petra, along with artists like Larry Norman, Phil Keaggy, and Daniel Amos pioneered what is now a huge industry of Christian rock music. Petra successfully transitioned from a Jesus music band to a new-wave pop band and then to an arena rock band. They were, however, unable to move forward from their arena band days successfully and while they were one of the defining bands of Christian music in the 80’s and 90’s, they were unable to replicate such success in the 21st century.
In reality, Petra probably hung around about five to seven years too long. Arena rock ebbed as alternative grunge music rose (and truth be told, I’d far rather hear more recent bands’ vocals than the screeching of hair-rock bands) and the revolving door of musicans resulted in a band that was mostly faceless excepting vocalist John Schlitt and guitarist Bob Hartman. Time and declining sales finally caught up to them.
I have long history with Petra. They had already been around a long time by the time I had discovered them, with over two decades of albums already released. The first album I ever picked up and heard was Petra Praise: The Rock Cries Out. These days, it is now the trendy thing to sneer on bands that jump on the bandwagon and create a praise and worship album. In 1989, however, the idea was pretty new. I remember mowing the yards in the summer listening to this album on my walkman. I remember listening to Beyond Belief on the way to Six Flags with my youth group. I wasn’t totally on board with hair-metal music, but I was starting to warm up to it.
It may be hard to believe now, but at one time, it was cool in high school to be a fan of Petra (well, at least among the youth group kids.) We all had t-shirts, the cassettes, and we thought we were the coolest. After the release of Unseen Power, I went with my friend Ashley and her church group to the concert in the civic center. That was my first ever rock concert and it’s still remembered as one of my top 15 concerts My friend David was at the concert also. As David and I became good friends (I’ll be writing more on that soon), Petra was a common factor.
In my freshman year of college, many of my fellow associates in my fraternity were all Petra fans and when Petra played again at the civic center, we all went as a large group. I remember Jon Preston returning from visiting his parents in Tampa and seeing them in concert while he was there. He walked up to me in a tour t-shirt exclaiming, “Dude! You are going to love this show!” I remember Jeff McCammon and Brian Water’s answering machine message, “You’ve reached Brian and Jeff, we’re not here, ’cause we’re seeing Petra!” The event was as big as any Switchfoot, Third Day, whatever concert you’d see today. Wake Up Call was more pop than rock, but it was still a memorable album.
John Lawry left Petra in 1994 and when he did, his signature keyboard sound left with him. Keyboards in rock and roll were on their way out at this time, but it signified an end to the Petra I knew and the beginning on a theme of change within the band. When No Doubt was released in 1995, I was in Florida, far away from most of my friends and far away from most everything that I was familar with. Petra was one of the few connections I had with my life back home. I went to see them in concert in Fort Lauderdale with Nolan and his little sister. I remember Nolan’s sister (who was, by far, the coolest and most mature thirteen year old I’ve ever met) saying after the show was over, “Wow. They were really good. I bought their CD. I wonder if they have any other CD’s?” During that tour, founding member Bob Hartman stopped touring, leaving no original members in the band. When I replaced the processor and motherboard in my computer, I dubbed my computer “Petra” since it no longer had any original parts inside the case anymore. This became a reoccuring gag among my friends.
In 1996, David and I were reunited to see Petra in concert in Gainesville. I was totally unaware that three days later my girlfriend would break up with me, which would last for a summer before we got together again. A year later, at the long, drawn out end of our relationship, when we had our last conversation on our phone, I hung up and listened to Petra Praise 2: We Need Jesus because at the end I had no idea what to do. So I did what Job and Jeremiah did after their world was turned upside down and praised God. A couple weeks later, David and I once again saw Petra in concert and that show was probably the best show I saw in terms of quality and intensity. The music was more mature than past work and we worshiped the Lord that night. I had hoped that this was the future of Petra, moving towards a more mature sound with more complex songs and an older audience doing music for the church.
Sadly, this was not to be the case. A year later, Petra released God Fixation, which sounded like a bad imitation of bands like Matchbox 20. It was clear that they were still trying to target the youth group audience and I had long grown up from that crowd. I was very disapointed in the songs and the music and Petra began to decline in my list of bands that I loved. David and I did get together again and see Petra in concert in 1998, this time in an interesting twist, opening for the Newsboys. The first time I saw them, a little known band from Australia known as the Newsboys were opening. The members of the band began to turn over quickly after this, and they seemed to become faceless to me.
By the time Double Take came out, I had moved on to other bands. I found intensity in subtlety in highly talented bands like Over the Rhine and Caedmon’s Call and if I needed a band that commanded an arena, U2 delivered with integrity and authenticity. I purchased the album because I almost felt a little obligated. The album was an acoustic reworking of old songs and I really wasn’t overwhelmed with the redone songs, but I at least appreciated that they were trying something different with their sound. I must’ve purchased this album around the time I got engaged to Adriene, because whenever I listen to it, I always have memories of buying her ring, going to Amicalola Falls and proposing and all the fun we had that weekend. In 2000, I did see them in concert at an outdoor festival in north Georgia and while the show was ok, I really had more fun walking around Tallulah Gorge and such.
When Bob Hartman started working with the band again, they experienced a slight upswing in quality. Of course, by the time Revival came out, everybody and their brother had released a praise and worship album, so it got buried. The album did have some nice tunes and for some reason I always associate it with coffee at Cafe Intermezzo near Perimeter Mall because I guess Adriene and I probably went there a lot around the time I picked up this CD. Adriene even said it sounded like Angie Aparo, so at least they were sounding a little more relevant. Jekyll and Hyde came out last year and while it finally sounded like the band had a little bit of a pulse, some of it was pretty derivative (even down to lifting guitar rifts from other bands, but that wouldn’t be the first time for Petra) and it just felt like the steam was running out.
David and I have had many years of memories with this band. They aren’t either of our favorites anymore by a longshot, but we still take a chance to see them in concert whenever they are in town to relive old times. I guess I knew the day would eventually come when they would finally stop, but part of me felt like since they had been around so long, they would always be around for me to both love and gently mock. It’s cliched to say that another part of my childhood has died, but well, there aren’t many pieces left, so it’s sad to see another part end.
A statement from their website says they plan to tour until the end of the year, doing a farewell tour of sorts. Hopefully they will swing through Atlanta so that David and I can recall simpler days of worshipping God and listening to music one last time.