By eye, it seemed like your typical pre-concert madness; people of countless races and fashions surrounding the merch tables, and countless others downing bottled drinks and contemplating the prices of chicken fingers. But from the moment I set foot in the overcrowded stadium, I sensed that something bigger than any of us was moving in that place.
In the arena, there was not an empty seat in sight, nor a moment of dead air space to be heard. Every soul in that room was excitedly chatting and yelling for their late friends to come get their seats, while Hillsong United’s Zion album occupied the arena stereo. The atmosphere was set for an electric night of worship, energy, and just plain fun. This was the night Zion invaded the untidy metropolis of Newark, New Jersey.
The lights dimmed and the people shouted. A piercing “Hello New Jersey!” echoed from the stage- but it wasn’t any voice I recognized. It wasn’t until the synthy intro to “Alive” that I knew it wasn’t United who took the stage, but their “youth group” counterpart, Hillsong Young & Free. The set was short, and the lightshow was mostly absent, but the ever-energetic Y&F succeeded in preparing the audience for a grand experience; in addition to “Alive”, “Brighter” and “Back To Life” were among the anthems played.
Once Y&F left the stage, spirits were high and hearts were primed for worship, dancing, and…well, videotaping. iPhones were raised high in anticipation of a explosive entry by United, which was preluded by a down-to-earth (and slightly anticlimactic) walk-in appearance by United’s very own singers Jonathon “JD” Douglass and Jad Gilles. The singers tossed out free t-shirts and albums, taught the audience how to dance “Australian” (good skill to have under your belt), and promoted the anti-trafficking A21 campaign (www.thea21campaign.org), before uttering a fervent prayer over the event.
The lights once again dimmed, and it was as if the arena was sealed off from civilization. Voices rose and the one and only Joel Houston led the people in a breathtaking rendition of “The Stand”. A massive neon mountain illuminated behind the band, radiating a spectum of colors throughout the arena like a brush to a canvas. “Relentless”, “Go”, and “Break Free” followed, kicking the concert into high gear and flooding the air with a potent energy of praise. Regardless of age or instruments, the band had a way of breathing new life into old favorites such as ”Hosanna”, “From The Inside Out”, and “Mighty To Save” never sounded better.
The hauntingly enjoyable “Aftermath” drew listeners into an interlude of sorts, and led in to an adrenaline-pumping build of “Shout Unto God” and “Freedom Is Here”. However, the atmosphere was electrified when rookie lead vocalist Taya Smith serenaded us with the infamous Zion melody, “Oceans”. Smith’s angelic and passionate voice ushered the crowd into the throneroom of the Lord, proving to be a memorable attribute of the show.
What seemed like an eternity passed us by until the encore came. It was as if Jad, JD, Joel and the crew couldn’t resist making us jump and frolick in our seats one last time. The farewell punch was delivered with “Your Name High”, “Yours Forever”, and Hillsong Young & Free’s “Wake”, the one song that Y&F left off their opening set. With “Wake” my favorite Y&F song, I was ecstatic when United headbanged to the music alongside their youth group companions.