It was a moderately sized room in a strip center in a semi-rural Houston suburb. Floodwaters had ravaged the metropolis for the last several days, and the fifty or so people in attendance were happy to talk about something other than the rain.
We sat restaurant-style at long oak tables in front of a tiny stage. Wait staff darted about, offering drinks, coffee and snacks, and hurried along before the lights dimmed.
The night opened with Mike Roe, front man for Christian alt rock pioneers, The 77’s, and a patron saint of sorts for the second generation of alternative Christian music artists. Roe helped give a voice to an entire movement of gen-ex musicians aching to play a sound for which the church, at large, wasn’t ready.
Roe performed three 77’s songs including, “Hey Mama” while The Choir’s Steve Hindalong joined on drums. After a short intermission, Derri Daugherty joined Roe and Hindalong for The Choir’s set. The short set included hits like “Blue Sky,” and the crowd pleasing “Circle Slide.” After another short intermission, Kevin Max took the stage.
Anyone expecting the enigmatic hipster that lit up every CCM bill through the 90s was curiously surprised. During The Choir’s set, he sat politely with his band at a back table, a simple audience member enjoying good music. On stage, he was relaxed, humble, and genuine.
Far from exclusively being relegated to coffee-house-sized venues, Max’s recent move toward a smaller stage is strategic. “House shows,” he announced on his Facebook page, “whether you find them invasive or alluring, are becoming the future of artists. [They are] a bit awkward, a bit joyous, a lot of fun and really a great communal environment based on music. I have decided to open up the floodgates and do more of these.” He has also expressed admiration for the house church as it allows people to comfortably connect and engage rather than be a spectator, which is how some feel in traditional church settings.
His unpretentious nature made it hard to imagine that the man spent over a decade playing sold-out arenas. That Kevin Max seems to be a thing of the past. Instead, the audience met a mustached “stranger” in a suit, with a familiar crisp Michigan accent and a distinctive voice.
From the stage, Max admitted a certain feeling of disconnect from his old music—”I’m just not there. I look back at some of that stuff and I think, ‘I was so full of myself”— then launched into the dc Talk favorite “What If I Stumble.” While performed masterfully, it seemed a bit of an odd choice. Against the backdrop of the low-key venue, one must wonder if it was an implied apology or perhaps remorse for not wholly conforming to the perceived CCM image.
Next up was “That Was Then And This Is Now,” a feel-good pop number from his new album, Broken Temples. He followed it with “Stranded 72.5,” from the EP Between the Fence and the Universe (2004).
A Kevin Max show would not be complete without a recitation of his poetry, which he read directly from his MacBook. The first installment was an unnamed tongue-in-cheek call to redraw the image of Christian fundamentalism, and the second, a worship piece entitled “Landscape.”
The show reached its climax with Max’s rendition of U2’s “40,” an ever safe choice for any artsy church musician. “This is not a rebel song,” he joked (quoting Bono’s line in “Under the Blood Red Sky,” referencing the hesitance of many Christians to accept bands like U2). Roe joined the band on bass for this tune, and Max soared, matching Bono stride for stride.
He then performed a rousing rendition of dc Talk’s “In the Light.” The magic of dc Talk was their onstage collaboration, but Max carried it well on his own, allowing him to freely showcase his iconic vocal prowess that is a must-hear in person. After closing the show with the Leonard Cohen/Jeff Buckley classic, “Hallelujah,” Max exited the stage to mingle with the audience.
With the shift to smaller, more intimate spaces, one thing is clear: Max knows what he’s doing. In a world of big-budget, glitzy Christian concert extravaganzas, he is bucking the trend—again. Fusing stadium-sized talent with up-close-and-personal, Max is delivering a singular experience that is palpably warm, yet pulsingly electric. Avail yourself of any opportunity to experience it for yourself. You won’t soon forget it.