How an Amazing Concert Became a Spiritual Experience

Read how this author's unexpected God moment at a concert changed his perspective.
BIRMINGHAM, AL – JANUARY 23: Amanda Sudano and Abner Ramirez of Johnnyswim perform at Iron City on January 23, 2016 in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo by David A. Smith/Getty Images)

What is it about music that can sometimes be so… much more than music?

On one sleepy Monday afternoon in July, I drove 175 miles out of my way to go to a concert all by my lonesome because, well, I was convinced that it was going to be worth it. As it turns out, the concert was so good I considered driving another 775 miles out of the way to do it all over again the next day. But like many of the greatest things in life, it was the surprise of just exactly how and why it was worth it that left such a meaningful and lasting impression.

So here’s the story of a guy with nothing better to do than roadtrip to Iowa to see one of his favorite bands again, hoping to perhaps find a new favorite, and how it turned out to be so much more: an evening of beauty, community, and even an experience with God Himself.

Opening act

First, some background: Drew Holcomb is a singer-songwriter, and along with “the Neighbors,” forms a folk-rock band that’s been one of my favorites for years. They were touring with Johnnyswim, a folksy singer-songwriter husband-wife duo of their own. I enjoyed seeing the former play many times, and I liked what I heard from the latter — but not quite enough of either to warrant a special trip to an Iowan mini-tropolis just to see them both play.

What made this particular tour intriguing to me, then, is the reason it came about in the first place: the two bands collaborated on an EP, Goodbye Road, and were traveling around to a limited number of hand-picked venues off the beaten path to play the four-plus songs they produced together. Hence my needing to travel a bit to get there.

I really enjoyed the three original songs on Goodbye Road (they also covered “I Won’t Back Down” in a tribute to the late, great Tom Petty), and was looking forward to hearing those songs live. But I was really interested in the prospect of the two bands playing their own material together — especially because both bands are vocally-driven, and so marked by three profoundly different sounds, between Abner and Amanda Ramirez (of Johnnyswim) and Drew.

Finding community in a new place

Don’t tell anybody, but I actually really like Iowa, and Des Moines in particular. One reason is the concert venue, Hoyt Sherman Place, which is gorgeous and has a hell of a history. From its origin as a Civil War-era magnate’s home to its current use as part-museum, performing arts center, and women’s club headquarters, there’s character to spare.

Minnesota likes to think it has the market cornered on “nice,” but let me tell you — Iowa is actually nice. Those women of the Des Moines Women’s Club who lent their time to host the evening are nice personified, even amusingly so. It was enough that I wasn’t even upset that they didn’t know what kind of beer they were pouring. Not to mention the red solo cups — nice touch, ladies.

So I was already at ease by the time I settled into my theater seat. Then, when the featured presentation was underway, Abner explained that tonight was going to be a night of community — of family — and it didn’t seem cheesy like such a line would normally strike me.

Perhaps it was the familial nature of both bands — both feature husband-and-wife duos, at least when Ellie Holcomb can get away from her role at home tending to her and Drew’s growing family. Or maybe it was just because they actually meant it — they wanted us to feel right at home with them as they made music.

Beauty in its many forms

Between the Victorian splendor of the building’s structure to the classical paintings that lined the inside of the Place, the concert’s setting raised the mind and heart — as good art does — in preparation for the main event.

As the curtains parted to introduce the featured presentation, they revealed five stand-up microphones across the front of the stage. You don’t have to know much about music to know what that means: harmonies. Penny and Sparrow (the opening acoustic guitar-playing duo), Abner and Amanda, and Drew and his “Neighbors” each have enough harmony firepower to carry any album or concert. But together? You can imagine what heavenly sounds were coming from those mics.

And if that wasn’t enough, they continued the recent Drew Holcomb concert tradition of stripping the music down for a few songs performed in front of an old-school, Elvis Presley-style boom mic. Heavenly. Truly.

A revival

I’ve been to my fair share of Christian rock concerts. Many of which, sorry to say, were not so heavenly. I like music with a positive and Christian vibe, but that doesn’t mean it has to be overtly Christian in lyrics or otherwise. Music can be heavenly enough on its own when done well.

I’ve also been to concerts where Christian bands went out of their way to try to make their show into some sort of praise-and-worship session, to diminishing returns. Personally, I go to mass on Sunday to worship, and I go to concerts for, well, something else.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Amanda was singing extemporaneously toward the end of one of Johnnyswim’s songs and began to invite the crowd to connect with God right then and there. “If I could touch the hem of his garment, I’ll be made whole,” she sang. “Reach out and touch the hem of his garment, and you’ll be made whole.”

It took me aback, quite honestly, because I wasn’t quite sure if we were singing one of her songs or if we were praying at that point. But really, that was the beauty of it. It wasn’t forced, it wasn’t some sort of manufactured come-to-Jesus moment. But then again, it was a come-to-Jesus moment. If you wanted it to be. Perhaps, if you were ready for it to be.

I walked out of that concert not knowing exactly what hit me. Sure, it might have been the mystery beers in those red solo cups. It might have been a combination of all sorts of different factors, from road-weariness to whatever was going on in my life at the time. Maybe it was just the randomness of it all that contributed to an unforgettable night.

But there was something about this concert that was more than a concert.

I know God used that concert by those artists in that place to make Himself known to me. And to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure what it was God was saying to me. But I did have an experience of God in that place.

Maybe that means I need to go on more concert roadtrips. Maybe that means I should do more things alone. Maybe I need to further open my mind to when, where, and how God wants to speak to me.

But whatever was going on in Hoyt Sherman’s house in Des Moines, Iowa, that July night, I’ll never forget it.

Lyrics from "Ring the Bells" by Johnnyswim and Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors: "Bang the drums, this means war and not the kind you're waiting for. We say mercy won't be rationed here, that's what we're fighting for."

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