We all dread saying a final goodbye. Unfortunately, finality and parting are inevitable in this life. If there must be an end, the way to do it is to get together one last time, spend a couple hours together and have a great time, pretending that the end is not upon us, laughing and celebrating, reliving old memories and making new memories, and then finally wishing each other well and going seperate ways. Last night, I got the opportunity to wish a band from my formative years, the high school and early college years, goodbye.
When I learned that Petra was going to perform their last show in the United States ever in Dawsonville, Georgia, I called David and told him we were going to the show, no questions asked. After we bought tickets to the show, it was announced that there would be a couple more shows after this one, so we lost the “special-ness” of seeing the last show ever, but nonetheless, this would still be my last show. David and I became friends shortly before our first Petra show together in 1992, when we were high school kids looking for girls (though, if I were to get a girl I don’t know if I would’ve known what to do with her then.) At this show, David is now the father of a baby with his wife and I had just celebrated my fifth year anniversary. So much has changed since our first show together. Our musical tastes have changed greatly since then. I have gotten more into acoustic, folk, and occasional modern rock music. David is now fully into techno music. However, we were arena rock fans just for tonight.
The show took place at Christ Fellowship Church in Dawsonville, Georgia. The church was located in an old warehouse where the church also apparently owned the bowling alley/go karts next door. (I was reminded of Derek Webb’s “Ballad in Plain Red”, “…they got a gym and a ferris wheel…”, but I digress) There was surprisingly large crowd which had the church auditorium filled almost to capacity. People had come from all over to the show. Every person sitting around us had their own stories… I’ve been a fan for 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, I’m bringing my child to see the band I loved, and so on. There was even a 76 year old woman that flew in from California earning the title of both “Oldest Petra Fan” and “Farthest Traveling Petra Fan” at the show.
Not that everyone was on old fan at the show. There were mop-headed teenagers there wearing t-shirts from tours that happened before they were born (and I thought they might have some ironic sense of humor, but when the songs began, they knew every word, too.) Small children sat at floor of the stage and gazed up. It seemed like everyone, including yours truly, had a camera at the show, eager to catch for themselves one last moment of the band before the end. Even a police officer in uniform stood at the front of the stage taking pictures with his camera. Not that there was any danger of unruly crowd behavior in the form of moshing or stage diving. The only person to jump on the stage was a small girl no older than four who ran to hug vocalist John Schlitt at the end of the show.
Though there was the possibly of having to deal with an unruly crowd. Schlitt missed his plane and had to take a later flight, no doubt racing up Georgia 400 from the Atlanta airport at speeds that would frighten any SUV soccer-mom that normally flies along that highway. We all waited outside of the sanctuary for almost an hour when the promoter of the show stood up in front of the crowd and asked, “Have any of you ever been to a Petra show that started on time?” to which we all thundered, “YES!” The natives were becoming restless and I joked to David that it would be a Petra concert of all concerts that would be subjected to pepper spray and water cannons. Nonetheless, the concert did start and the opening band, Bread of Stone played about four songs to warm the crowd up. Their sound was fairly non-descript and muddy, but they didn’t make me angry, so they passed the Opening Band Test.
Petra took the stage and started right into their newest album. The band has almost totally changed since the first show I saw them. Gone are the stacks of keyboards from John Lawry. Gone are the Mickey Mouse drums of Louie Weaver. Gone is the bass guitar of Ronny Cates. The two new members, Paul Simmons on drums and Greg Bailey on bass were more than adequate replacements. Guitarist Bob Hartman had stopped touring with the band 10 years ago but recently returned, bringing back a technical skill that his replacements sometimes lacked. If anything, he sounded better than what I remember during the band’s heyday and even dared to improvise a little and stretch out some solos, giving a welcome unexpected feel to some songs. And there was vocalist John Schlitt, if his voice had changed at all, it was a little hoarser giving the songs an additional grit, but it wasn’t hard at all to close your eyes and pretend it was 1992 or even 1987 again.
The stage set was sparse. No grand stage set up like the days in the arenas. No ramps or backdrops or video screens like the 80’s or 90’s. There was only a simple screen in the back and the instruments on the stage. There was no need for pyrotechnics and exploding fireworks tonight. The music would be enough and the plain set up allowed the band to be loose and enjoy themselves. It was refreshing to see Petra relaxed as oppossed to their highly planned shows in their past. When drummer Paul Simmons’ had technical issues and disappeared from the drum chair to fix it, Bob Hartman joked that perhaps their drummer had “spontaneously combusted”, no doubt drawing connections to their own Spinal Tap-type history.
The set progressed through songs from their newest CD, Jekyll and Hyde and some of their old classics like “Dance” and “Judas Kiss.” and even their modified rocking version of “Amazing Grace.” The absense of keyboards was noticeable, but otherwise the songs, well, rocked. Rocked like arena rock had never gone away. They then blistered through a medley of rock songs ranging all across the span of their long career moving seemlessly from “Sight Unseen” to “It Is Finished” to “Think Twice” to “I Am On The Rock” to “Midnight Oil” to “Mine Field” to “This Means War.” The highlight of the show for me was the acoustic break in the middle of the concert. Greg Bailey laid his bass guitar down and sat down to play cello and Bob Hartman picked up the acoustic guitar. The band then played a medley of ballads from all across their history, each song given a nice rearrangement with the cello, going from “Rose Colored Stained Glass Windows” to “Road to Zion” to “More Power to Ya” to “Annie’s Song” to “No Doubt” to “The Coloring Song” to “Love.” From there, it was time to wrap up the show and when they started “Beyond Belief”, it really did feel like David and I were teenagers again. There were short drum and guitar solos that reminded us of days past when overblown solos were de rigueur for a rock concert. The encore followed with “He Came, He Saw, He Conqured” and the familiar praise chourses of “Lord, I Lift Your Name On High” and “We Need Jesus”
At the end of the night, just like every Petra concert, Bob Hartman shared the good news of the Gospel with the crowd (and more than any other show, this may have been preaching to the choir since an overwhelming majority of the crowd were hardcore Petra fans.) This, however, is what Petra has done and they will stay the course to the end. To their credit, across their 33 year career, while they have meandered from musical style to musical style as trends changed, this band has eschewed getting entangled in trendy religion fads, theological debates, political endorsements, or social commentary (save for their adamant message of abstinence and aid to third world countries.) Their message has never wavered from their first day, to know Jesus Christ personally and to know him more every day.
…and when it’s all said an done, that’s a pretty good way to be remembered.