Nobody has kept track of the history behind the concert series now known as Winter Jam, a highly staged presentation of contemporary Christian bands that draws thousands of fans to its message of hope.
It started with the band NewSong, which booked the old Greenville Memorial Auditorium after Christmas one year in the early 1990s, hoping for 1,500 people – and attracting 8,000, said Russ Lee, 53-year-old singer-songwriter and frontman for the jam’s host group.
This year, The Winter Jam Tour Spectacular is celebrating its 20th anniversary, though no one is absolutely sure when it all began, Lee said.
Regardless, the tour is continuing its 10-bands-for-$10 approach – no tickets required. Those who can’t afford to pay get in free.
That’s a mainstay.
“It’s following the formula of keeping Christ at the center of it and trying to keep it affordable for families,” Lee said.
For the past four years, Winter Jam has been one of the most-attended tours among all artists and genres, based on tracking of first-quarter ticket sales by industry magazine Pollstar.
The event has always had a following in Columbia, he said, where it is staged again Saturday at the Colonial Life Arena.
Carefully timed production adds to the evening’s excitement: Bands get on and off stage without a break in the flow, using video, pyrotechnics, even stages that rise and fall.
The headliner is Skillet, with featured performers Jeremy Camp, Francesca Battistelli, Building 429, For King & Country, Family Force 5 and evangelist Tony Nolan. A pre-jam party will showcase Blanca, About A Mile and VERIDIA.
The diversity of the bands keeps things interesting for the audience: Lee said most people stay for the entire show to be introduced to new music.
“Every year, Winter Jam changes. The only thing that’s consistent is NewSong, $10 at the door and a love offering,” he said.
Lee said the audience can expect “a night of encouragement and hope” from every band that takes the stage.
“A lot of Christian writers, we write about hope. Yes, life is hard, but there’s hope. Yes, it’s dark, but the sun’s going to shine.
“Because of our faith and our deep relationships with God and Jesus, we have this abiding hope.”
If you go: The Winter Jam Tour Spectacular, Saturday, March 14; doors open at 5 p.m. with the show starting at 6 p.m.; Colonial Life Arena, 801 Lincoln St., Columbia; $10 at the door, general admission; jamtour.com.