Jon Foreman live @ Azusa Pacific University: Terminal Bliss

Jon Foreman’s “25 in 24” tour provided not only a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse at how his unlikely feat of performing 25 shows in 24 hours came to be a few years ago, but also reminded fans of just how deeply his conviction to live each and every hour of life he’s been given to the fullest still runs. This was a breathtaking show, with unique arrangements of songs from Foreman’s solo albums and a few fan-selected Switchfoot tracks, revealing entire new worlds of possibility behind even songs I’d known and loved for close to two decades.


I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Jon Foreman in concert. The man is of course best known as the lead singer of Switchfoot, and the majority of the times I’ve seen him perform live have been in this capacity, stretching as far back as opening gigs for now-defunct bands like Delirious? and The O.C Supertones at around the turn of the century. Switchfoot was one of my favorite bands for a stretch of three albums or so in the early 2000s, and I made it a point to see them at least once as each new record came out, until I started getting burned out on them in the late 2000s and early 2010s. It wasn’t so much that their albums released at around that time didn’t get me quite as excited – it was more that the now-classic songs I knew and loved from The Beautiful Letdown era had become such a fixture of their sets that it didn’t leave as much room for highlights from their other albums that I was more interested in hearing them play live. This becomes a problem with any band if you follow them long enough and you’re interested in hearing more than just “new album and greatest hits” when you see them on tour. This may be a nitpicky thing that only affects listeners like me who can get deeply invested in a band’s entire discography, but who tire easily of repetition. As exhilarating as it was when Switchfoot first hit it big with their unstoppably optimistic, but philosophically rooted, take on the Christian faith and the need for all of us, regardless of our personal religious convictions, to seize the finite amount of time we’ve been given and make sure our lives are lived meaningfully in a way that will be positively remembered when we’re gone, to some extent it all started to feel a bit scripted and played out for me somewhere around the Hello Hurricane era. While Switchfoot made a pretty strong comeback, in terms of creativity and musical diversity, on their 2017 album Where the Light Shines Through, at this point they’re one of those bands that if I never saw them live again, I’d probably be okay with it. (Having said that, they will still put on a phenomenal show, and their energy level hasn’t dipped at all with age, so if you’re into Switchfoot at all and have never seen them live, then by all means, you should go for it.) But I’ve started to find Jon Foreman more interesting for his efforts outside of the band – he’s always struck me as a profoundly thoughtful person who can never seem to stop writing and recording the multitude of ideas that come to him. His solo records, and also his side band Fiction Family, have become wonderful outlets over the years for ideas of his that might have not fit in as well on Switchfoot’s albums – generally the mellower ones that lean a little more toward folk, country, jazz, or baroque pop in their arrangements. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Fiction Family in concert twice, but I’d never seen Jon Foreman in person as a solo act until last night, when he brought his “25 in 24” tour to Azusa Pacific University.

The tour’s entire reason for being is the “25 in 24” documentary, which was made back in October 2015, when Foreman decided that in lieu of a traditional tour to celebrate the completion of his song cycle The Wonderlands, he would instead schedule 25 concerts in miniature, at locations all over the San Diego area that had been meaningful places to him at some point in his life, to take place on the hour, over the course of an entire day. I’ve joked before that the man records and tours so much that he must never sleep, and this may as well have confirmed my suspicion. Thematically, this was a fascinating way to promote a series of songs that were meant to represent each hour of the day, starting with Sunlight, moving into Shadows and Darkness, and finally emerging at Dawn. With faithful cellist Keith Tutt by his side and several musical collaborators ranging from his bandmates in Switchfoot and Fiction Family to his own mother, a high school wind ensemble, and even a mariachi band, these performances took place at some of the unlikeliest of venues, with a breakneck travel schedule that must have been a complete nightmare to plan, considering all of the moving parts and possible things that could have gone wrong. A documentary camera followed him throughout the 24-hour period, capturing an enormous amount of highs and the occasional low when a part of the plan went awry. Foreman wanted his fans to have a chance to experience the film as a community, so he created a tour around it, during which it would be shown in lieu of an opening act, and then he and his buddies would play a set mostly consisting of his solo material, with a few Switchfoot songs thrown in, and a bit of flexibility based on what fans that night wanted to hear. This was such an amusing and unconventional idea for a concert that I knew right away I had to be a part of it.

The film actually went more into depth than I was expecting, running for a good hour and showing snippets of nearly all of the 25 performances, working nearly every song from The Wonderlands into either the live footage or the soundtrack. It made a point of showing a little bit of the planning leading up to the big event, with index cards strewn about on the floor of Jon’s recording studio to help illustrate the insane scope of how many songs he had to arrange (3 per gig, for a grand total of 75), which ones he was sure he was confident enough to play while running on minimal sleep toward the end, and which musicians would participate at each individual location. It was made clear that there was no financial incentive for doing this, and it wasn’t necessarily even that much of a publicity stunt, with a lot of the details kept on the down-low until not long before each performance took place, to keep the audience size manageable at each. This was just a personal passion of Jon’s – to have an entire 24-hour period of his life filled with nothing but music and connecting with the people to whom his music had meant something over the years. While the occasional mishaps, such as their tour van breaking down, having to play at a gas station at an odd hour of the morning after a venue fell through, or musicians showing up without the proper time to rehearse and needing chords called out to them as they played the song, were quite amusing, I really wasn’t expecting some of this footage to pack such an emotional punch. Even though Jon had written these songs and knew the details of each one intimately, I could see that the audience interacting with those songs had a profound effect on his and his colleagues, such as when the chorus of “Run Free” echoed from the top of Mount Soledad at sunrise, or Jon’s mother Jan played the pipe organ at Spreckels Pavilion (which was apparently his first time hearing her play the instrument!), or most profoundly, when they performed “All of God’s Children” at the same children’s hospital where Jon’s daughter Daisy had undergone an emergency surgery a few years ago that had resulted in Switchfoot canceling a tour so that he could be home with his family. Each gig was unique, and celebrated a different facet of Jon’s life experience in the city he had always called home, and it was both hilarious and heartwarming to see how some of his most devoted local fans had started to catch on to what he was doing and ended up following the old, beat-up van from one gig to the next as the night wore on. (Side note: It’s a miracle that this zany scheme didn’t result in any accidents from drowsy driving.) By the time it all came to an end at the beach where Jon first learned how to surf, everyone involved was exhausted but deliriously happy, and after the final notes of The Wonderlands‘ concluding track “Before Our Time” were played, Jon waded out to catch some waves at a time when most of us would have rightfully wanted to take a long nap right there in the sand. This was a fun spectacle, but with purpose – Jon wanted the story of his own dream coming to fruition to be an inspiration to others, who had dreams they had long felt called to pursue, but who continually had excuses and obstacles holding them back. “Follow your dreams” normally sounds like a cliched statement, but hearing Jon encourage others to do it, and knowing that this sentiment has been the lifeblood of so many of the songs he’s written throughout his lifetime, gave it very real power. Even while openly wrestling with his doubts and fears of failure, he’s been consistent about this one thing, and he never comes off as pretentious when talking about it. That was true in the film, and it was true when Jon and his crew took the stage as well.

Now at this point, I’d have been happy just to get Jon playing an acoustic guitar all by his lonesome, bantering with the crowd and picking songs out of a hat with no real plan in mine. I didn’t expect the fuller arrangements that we ended up getting, with Keith Tutt at Jon’s side playing the cello, Fiction Family member Aaron Redfield on drums, Jon’s childhood friend Boaz (I forgot the guy’s last name) on guitar, and later a trumpeter and trombonist, and Keith’s sister on violin (all of whose names I’ve also forgotten). This was not at all a traditional rock band setup, despite a number of Switchfoot songs making their way into the setlist, and that actually made me a lot more excited to hear those songs than I otherwise would have been, because they seemed to have new potential in this setting. “Only Hope”, a.k.a the song that launched Switchfoot into mainstream visibility when Mandy Moore covered it for A Walk to Remember all those years ago, pretty clearly benefited from having all of these players available, but it had an unlikely effects on “I Dare You to Move” and the band’s more recent single “I Won’t Let You Go” as well. Much of the setlist had apparently been cobbled together from pieces of paper that the VIP fans near the front of the venue had been given to write song titles on and leave on stage. Obviously Jon couldn’t even get to a fraction of those suggestions, but it gave the impression that the set was quite different on this tour from one night to the next, perhaps with a few pre-rehearsed arrangements serving as the anchors, like the ominous opening number “Terminal” (my personal favorite from The Wonderlands) and the expected appearance of “Before Our Time” as an encore. Beyond that, the setlist was truly unpredictable. Jon fumbled a few of the lyrics to “Patron Saint of Rock & Roll”, but the slightly off-kilter song about the tension between Christians and patriotism and social justice still came off incredibly well, especially with the assistance of the horn section. Several tracks from Jon’s previous solo project made an appearance, from the downright mean-sounding extended jam “Resurrect Me” to the worshipful hymns “Your Love Is Strong” and “In the House of God, Forever” (during which Keith’s sister quite admirably filled in for Jon’s sister-in-law Sarah Masen on the duet vocal). Perhaps the biggest surprise was how little of the setlist actually ended up being songs from The Wonderlands, which might be my only disappointment. It’s hard to argue with such a strong back catalogue, but four songs from Sunlight and only one from Dawn made an appearance, completely skipping over Shadows and Darkness. Sure, those are the two darker EPs, on which the material isn’t as likely to get a crowd revved up as hearing an old favorite, but I thought some of those tracks were quite intricately arranged, and it would have been nice to hear how Jon had gone about adapting them in a live setting. (The film did manage to satiate at least a little bit of my curiosity in that department.) I really couldn’t go home with any complaints, though. Jon’s personality and willingness to adapt to seemingly any musical setting or logistical challenge presented to him is infectious. His music, even at its starkest and most vulnerable, strikes a deep emotional chord that seems to get magnified times ten when I get to watch him work a crowd. The guy’s got me believing that if he can make one of his wildest dreams come true, then maybe so can all of us.

The evening’s most emotional moment came near the end of the main set, when the makeshift band on stage all crowded around a single mic for a stripped-down rendition of “All of God’s Children”. That song damn near had me in tears when he had performed it in the documentary, and it was even harder to hold back after once again considering what the song had to say as I sang along with it as a part of the reverent chorus of voices present in the room that night. I thought of how helpless Jon must have felt when his own daughter’s life had hung in the balance, and how real the moments of joy must have been that he had shared with other children in that hospital who perhaps only had months or weeks left to live. I thought of the Foster daughter that my wife and I were hoping to adopt, how she had come to us from a place of neglect and apparent hopelessness, and how our time spent with her over the past year, watching her grow and thrive in our care, was and still is the big lifelong dream that we are now living out. I thought of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando two years ago, and how deeply that tragedy had affected a few close friends of mine who identified as gay Christians, and how Jon’s song had been running through my head as I participated in a memorial service that my church held for the victims. I thought of the fact that, mere minutes before the film was shown that evening, my phone buzzed with a news alert that our loose cannon of a President had effectively declared war on Syria after being disturbed by images of children killed and maimed by chemical weapons its government had used, and how many more non-combatants were now going to die as a morally complex situation escalated between us and them and Russia. Life in a fallen world is just awful sometimes, and it often hurts people who are innocent of the whole thing, just trying to live out their daily routines and maybe hold on to some glimmer of hope that one day, they too will be able to move beyond mere survival and actually get to live out their dreams. Jon and I share a belief in a God who will one day make all of these things right. But we want to make right what we can, in God’s name, even in the face of people starting wars and committing all kinds of atrocities, also somehow believing that they are doing the will of God. Thinking about all of that stuff at once, I couldn’t help but get a bit choked up as I tried to sing these words:

I believe in a world that’s beyond me
I believe in a world I ain’t seen
Past the glass, and shotgun shacks
And violent, faceless, racist facts
I believe in a world that’s made clean
All of God’s children, shining underneath

Faith is the evidence of things unseen. Jon Foreman’s music restored a bit of that faith for me last night.

Setlist:

  • Terminal
  • Caroline
  • Restless
  • Patron Saint of Rock & Roll
  • I Won’t Let You Go
  • Only Hope
  • Resurrect Me
  • In the House of God, Forever
  • All of God’s Children
  • I Dare You to Move

Encore:

  • Before Our Time
  • Your Love Is Strong

One thought on “Jon Foreman live @ Azusa Pacific University: Terminal Bliss

  1. Pingback: Switchfoot and Colony House live @ The Wiltern: Bands of Brothers | murlough23

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