On Thursday, September 27, 2012, I saw Derek Webb perform at the Prophet Bar in Dallas, TX on the first stop of his Ctrl tour.
Three-piece band Page CXVI both opened for Derek and backed him for his part of the show. While I only caught two songs of Page CXVI's set, they stirred me enough to purchase one of their hymn-based albums soon.
After a short break, Derek took the stage and quickly told us how the evening would go. He'd comply with a few requests, then he and "the Page people" would play the entirety of his new album, Ctrl, while he would intersperse reading excerpts from a four act fictional story he wrote to coincide and elucidate the themes of his newest album.
In one of many choice lines of the night, he relayed his motivation for playing the album straight through:
"I don't write singles. Nothing I have to say can be compressed into three minutes. I need at least an hour."
At this particular show, the requested song list included:
He played all of them solo on an acoustic guitar. Even as stripped down as most of these songs were in comparison to their recordings, I was again reminded how much these songs flow from his innermost being, that is, how much they mean to him and how much he wants them to mean to us.
Noticeably absent were any Caedmon's Call songs, which made me wonder if he ever covers these anymore or if a majority of people would still desire him to. A few vocal fans made requests for such songs, like "Bus Driver," but Derek admitted to having selective hearing while on stage. With such a vast repertoire of songs and a long history of playing them, I couldn't blame him.
Throughout these songs he shared a few choice soundbites. After relaying the story of how he and singer-songwriter wife Sandra McCracken met and married quickly, he offered this advice to the men in the audience:
"Stalking, if it ends well, is OK."
Dangerous words, but Derek's been known to say controversial things. For instance, he also said,
"The word Christian, when applied to anything other than a person, is just marketing."
This line alone could necessitate an entire book, or at least a blog post called Safe for the Whole Family: The Marketing of Jesus.
Page CXVI then assumed the very unassuming stage, simply adorned with shadeless lamp fixtures on the ground. Backed by keys, an electric guitar, a MacBook, and a kickless drumset with one snare, one cymbal, and one tambourine, Derek switched to a classical guitar with nylon strings.
Ctrl is a challenging album about our relationship with technology. The show, like the album, demands much from the audience. It's not a feel good album, unless you listen closely and get to the end, and even then you might not leave with the same buzz as after hearing Stockholm Syndrome played in full. Ctrl is a message that has to sneak past your technological defenses. I found it challenging to keep up with the narrative, but that mostly occurred because I was attempting to take notes and photos on my phone.
And that's the thing. The phone is ubiquitous. I wonder if musicians love them or loathe them at concerts. They allow people to share an artist's image and sound to the world, but they take away from the main reason an artist performs in the first place—to share a present moment of connection with the audience. Hidden behind a screen, experiencing "life" through comments, likes, and shares, prevents such a connection from occurring.
I fear that the very technology he sings about may be the one reason people won't resonate with the full-length album performance. We no longer have the capacity to engage with something that demands so much from us.
Toward the close of the night, "Reanimate" starts with the recognizable sound of a flatlining heartrate monitor coming to life, reminiscent of "Come Awake" on the David Crowder Band's epic album A Collision or (3+4=7). Collision specifically dealt with the traumatic and sudden death of their pastor. In a similar fashion, Ctrl presses into the issues of death as it relates to killing the inner man. In other words, this is an album about putting sinful desires to death. Those desires take a million different forms, whether it's worshipping technology, ogling an image on the Internet, or needing to control every aspect of your life.
Ctrl is saturated in theology so long as you understand the issues at play. However, instead of preaching to the choir (as he's been wont to do in the past), Derek preaches to himself. More often than not, these are the types of sermons that resonate deeply with an audience because they can see themselves within the unfolding story.
If you can handle an hour-long narrative told through soothing yet thought-provoking songs, be sure to catch both Derek Webb and Page CXVI on the Ctrl tour. While the album feels like a slight departure from recent releases like his SOLA-MI project and Stockholm Syndrome, Derek continues to push the boundaries out for what
Christian music music created by a Christian can be.