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Christian Music Makes the Message Modern.

By Charles Brown

July 14, 1997:  It's Sunday at the Joy Fellowship in Slidell, and Pastor Larry Rocques and guitar player Bill McCormick are laying down a groove. The music sounds familiar -- like the subdudes maybe, or the Radiators in ballad mode -- but the venue is definitely different.

Joy Fellowship is a church. And while some Slidell residents might remember the site as Catfish Charlie's or the Country Connection, a group has come today to hear the word of God as well as some righteous tunes.

The groove at Joy grabs the all-white crowd, which came ready to dance. Southern rock stylings, punctuated by a jangly tambourine, sound amazingly similar to those in local clubs. The only real difference is the lyrics (projected onto the back wall by an overhead light), which eschew drinking and sex in favor of God.

As the music slows down, the band turns reverential. McCormick has his hands out and is freestyling praises. Rocques is filling in gospel sounds with the Hammond B3 organ patch on his Yamaha synth. He has his eyes closed as the whole congregation sways, arms stretched to heaven and joining in the celebration. As the band stops, the quiet brings a peace to the hall so that the preaching can begin.

The crowd is in a state of rapture.

The New Testament

The scene at Joy Fellowship proves that the local music scene is taking a cue from the national music industry, which has wholeheartedly opened its arms to contemporary Christian music -- and its free-spending fans.

During the last half-decade, gospel music has completed an amazing journey. Five years ago, Christian artists were tucked away in small music sections at the back of specialty bookstores. Now, many artists are signed to major labels and scoring huge, mainstream hits.

Bob Carlisle's Butterfly Kisses is currently the top-selling album in the country. Kirk Franklin's God's Property recently hit the Top 5. And alternative rocker DC Talk is a multiplatinum artist with a deal with influential Virgin Records.

Times have changed, and the Christian music industry's $538 million in total annual sales last year gives a loud "amen" to that. The changes have come to New Orleans, where local Christian rockers are blending their gospel message with the bouncy, rollicking sound of one of the nation's few regional music hotbeds.

In New Orleans, of course, religion and music have been soulmates for generations. The Neville Brothers have always infused their funk with outwardly Christian messages, and church congregations have been the first audience for most of our finest R&B singers.

But now a new generation of players is adding its voice to the tradition in record numbers.

Although he's technically one of the "new breed," Rocques has been a mainstay on the local music scene since he plied his trade as a keyboardist in bands like Paper Steamboat and Wild Cherry (not the funk band who had the huge hit "Play That Funky Music," but a regional band that was told not to use the name anymore). Now, he's using his talents to spread the gospel and he couldn't be more pleased with the results.

"I thought my conversion would take my music away and put me in a serene, antiseptic room, marching to victory songs," said Rocques. "But I realized that God is the author of music. It doesn't have to be boring and not attract people to the church."

Rocques' partner McCormick is the driving force behind the church band. He writes original tunes and also takes modern Christian songs and rearranges them to fit the style of the group. Rocques, for one, appreciates the alternative kick that McCormick adds to the music.

"If you read the Book of Psalms, you will understand that heaven is a loud place," says Rocques. "We are to praise God with many instruments. We want to take back music from evil, with its bad messages. By putting in contemporary sounds, we can boldly proclaim the gospel. God wants to be more popular than Mick Jagger."

Surrounded by Sin

It's Tuesday night on Bourbon Street, and the summer crowd is fairly active. People are hanging out, checking out the scene and perhaps taking a sly look at the most famous pair of legs (artificial, at least) on the street. The fishnetted darlings protruding from Big Daddy's will always catch your eye, but it is the coffeehouse next door that wants to snare your soul.

Cafe Joel has been open only for three years, but its champions at Metairie's Victory Fellowship church (which is affiliated with Slidell's Joy Fellowship) have elaborate plans for the future. Right now, the place has the look of a church hall, with white walls, dried autumn leaves wreathed over the stage, a cross made of wildflowers, and cream and brown curtains wrapped together in the corners.

In contrast to its neighbors, the place is brightly lit and full of hard shadows. But Donald Callia, the unofficial assistant to the pastor of the cafe, says that his boss plans to close down soon -- and only briefly -- to redecorate. He wants to paint the walls black, rebuild the stage area, and make it look like other nightclubs.

"We want to be part of the secular world without compromising our values," said Callia. "We want to rub elbows with the tourists. It was a conscious choice to pick Bourbon Street as our location."

Landon Spradlin usually plays blues at Joel. A pastor with Victory Fellowship, the guitarist sometimes draws comparisons with Duane Allman and Stevie Ray Vaughn. But tonight, a youth choir from the Open Door Baptist Church is celebrating in the cafe. The kids from Moorehead City, N.C., and are part of a week-long blitz of 11 youth groups in the city. The choir performed at the Milne Home and at the C.J. Peete center earlier in the day, but now the youths are celebrating for themselves and anyone who happens to walk in.

Group leader Broken Oliver, who was once a student at the New Orleans Baptist Seminary, remembers a coffeehouse called The Way that hosted performances from seminarians in 1969. Tonight, Oliver and his sons are belting out such classics as "One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus" and James Taylor's "You've Got a Friend" rewritten for a Christian audience. One young man does serious interpretive dance to songs called "Rend the Sky" and "This Blood's For You." He is full of the Sturm und Drang of a powerful victory song.

Amid all this inspired music-making, Cafe Joel is still unmistakably a part of the French Quarter scene. Gutter punks file in for the no-strings-attached bathroom, and homeless men come in for cheap coffee. When one young woman, dog-collared and blue-haired, asks that the customers and staff pray for her recently deceased brother, they swarm around her to lay on hands, hoping that some of their spirit will flow into her. The prayers sing out through the loudspeaker, and the young woman is moved to tears.

But she doesn't stay for a drink. The musical shepherds will have to wait for the next lost sheep.

Water Into Wine

Wednesday night is "Prayer Meeting Night" at the Victory Fellowship Church, and on this night about 800 people have joined the celebration at the Niron Butler Auditorium on Airline Highway in Metairie. All week long, youth gatherings have dominated the services. True to form, most of the crowd is under 21.

But for the pews, the auditorium, which holds 2,300 people, would look like a concert hall. There is an undeniable concert atmosphere here, however. When Ty Tyler, musical director of the Fellowship, walks to the front of the stage, he flirts with the audience like any rock star would, except he's yelling stuff like, "Who's ready to praise God tonight?"

Victory Fellowship, with its 2,500 members, is at the forefront of the New Orleans Christian rock scene. The Assembly of God faction specializes in music that pulses with the funk, rock and jazz sounds of this region.

Tyler is the first to admit that the music is different. When he goes to out-of-town conferences and shares his music, people comment that they "do things differently down there." But most of the reactions are positive, as demonstrated by the sales figures of the official Victory Fellowship church band's CD, The River. Tyler says he has sold 30,000 copies and that word of mouth has spread to 32 states. The group is on several Christian rock stations, including a major commercial broadcaster in Nashville.

Tyler thinks his group's unusual, hybrid sound is a blessing.

"In times of worship, [God] will let me know that what I am doing is right," he said. "He looks into the heart of man and he sees that the hearts of the people are touched and that lives are changing."

Pastor Frank Bailey, head of the Victory Fellowship, has given Tyler the authority to explore this creativity.

"We talk about the music and what people in New Orleans like," said Bailey. "I am not a third generation church person. I came from the secular world, and, although I am not a musician, I want to hear the same kind of music I enjoyed before."

Bailey's "kind of music" apparently includes free-flowing jams that aren't entirely unlike the fits of group improvisation at a jazz concert or a Grateful Dead show. But the inspiration for the improvs is certainly less narcotic than it's spiritual. Victory band bass player Pat Alvarez admits that he finds his muse by feeling the presence of God and having a free and open heart.

"It's like a chain reaction," said Alvarez. "One person just starts a groove and we all fall in. But we have a purpose, not just to satisfy a frenzy or desire. It's an anointing and a calling. It's just great to see people get touched."

During a recent revival, the band played nightly to full houses. Some fans had to be turned away at the door. The shows attracted the sort of crowds that many secular bands would die for, but Alvarez says he doesn't feel as though he's beating the competition.

"It's really not the same," he said. "They are there to sell themselves and get their name out. The only name we want to get out is Jesus."

Bailey agrees. He says that most music, even some Christian music, is created for commercial reasons and not for purposes of worship. But he sees his church's music as a tool to strengthen the community.

"With the cultural mix we have, we can express ourselves freely," he said.

Kurt Who?

Tyler sits at the Victory Fellowship piano and counts off. The band plays music that sounds like vintage Bruce Hornsby. The crowd is dancing immediately. Hands are flying and bodies are bouncing right on time.

But Tyler and his band are not the star attraction this evening. Tonight is youth night, and a group of young men is on stage. They all look like they have just come from a Rolling Stone shoot, hair and clothes as contemporary as they come. They pose behind their instruments just like their heroes on MTV, but their leader, a fortyish Bulgarian emigre who sings and plays guitar and fiddle, is running up and down the stage, preaching and singing for all he's worth.

As the band breaks into a song that U2 might have recorded 15 years ago, the crowd of teenagers that has mobbed the front of the stage (without any pushing, mind you) bounces and sings along.

A quick glance at the kids' faces tells you that they are a product of their time. Fashion is important to them, but their eyes are wide. In a desperate age, they live without much of the turmoil that holds back so many of their peers.

These kids could care less that Kurt Cobain killed himself.

The only death that matters to them happened to a different messiah about 2,000 years ago. And it seems to matter more because of the music they're hearing today.

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