Every musician dreams of creating a devoted audience, the kind that sticks with them throughout the years and comes together whenever and wherever the artist may appear. Such was the case Sunday, June 5th when fans from as far away as Holland came to Southern California and the House of Blues in Anaheim to see veteran Christian alt rockers Undercover play their first concert in eleven years.
As I mentioned this past March, Undercover started life as the ferocious leader of Calvary Chapel Santa Ana’s second musical wave. In the early 1970s, the church, pastored by the late Chuck Smith, was the west coast Jesus Movement’s hub, fervently evangelizing through all available means as the belief was Christ’s Second Coming was imminent. Although Jesus continues showing tremendous restraint on pulling this weary planet’s plug, the faithful remain connected to Him and each other, the music of that time serving as a warm reminder of youthful faith’s heady enthusiasm and a welcome lifeline to the risen Savior.
The music emanating from Calvary Chapel Santa Ana, mostly under the Maranatha! Music name, initially reflected the church’s locale with its emphasis on the Laurel Canyon folk/country/rock stylings (I refer you to the masterful Richie Furay for a superb example). When the 1970s moved into the 1980s, a period when punk and alternative rock’s far more aggressive stylings became predominant, despite moderate to severe resistance in some Christian circles, this new music direction made its presence felt. Heading the charge from Maranatha’s side of things was Undercover’s mix of pogo-pop and punk.
In the mid-1980s, Maranatha closed shop for everything except praise and worship music, leaving the artists previously under its wings on their own. Undercover carried on for another decade, its music and message both growing in power as it lyrically embraced a far greater spectrum of life’s experiences than strict evangelism permitted.
That said, Undercover hasn’t released an album in over two decades. They haven’t played a concert in over a decade. Hardly the stuff of career momentum. Yet, all it took was a Facebook post a few months back, and the show sold out. On a Sunday night, no less, much to the apparent bewilderment of club employees who, despite handling all manners of shows several times a week, needed firm guidance from two music industry veterans who themselves came from Undercover’s era on how to handle a very self-controlled crowd.
The packed house first welcomed Cush, i.e., a good portion of The Prayer Chain. This was followed by an acoustic set from Mike Roe of The 77s and The Lost Dogs, with nimble assistance from Steve Hindalong of The Choir and The Lost Dogs on percussion. A couple of songs were graced by Derri Daugherty, making a more-than-welcome live performance return after several severe health issues last year. Set highlights included Roe’s plaintive masterpiece “The Lust, The Flesh, The Eyes, and The Pride of Life,” which, unlike the unwieldy title, is a rich flowing cry of the human condition when one pursues anyone and anything but God. Roe with Daugherty warmly recreated their version recorded under the Kerosene Halo moniker of Terry Scott Taylor’s “Rice Paper Wings.”
Undercover then commanded the stage for nearly two hours. The energy never flagged as the band rolled out song after song, each welcomed as a long-absent friend. Sim Wilson remains one of the best rock frontmen most people have never seen, able to command a crowd not through flamboyance or exaggeration but simple commanding stage presence and a powerful voice that has lost none of its roar. Drummer Gary Olson kept expert time while guitarist Gym Nicholson laid down heavy yet melodic riffs 99.44 percent of all metal guitarists would cheerfully kill to possess. Ojo Taylor on keyboards pounded out both bass lines and space-filling washes. This is a crucial element of Undercover’s strength, its ability to create musical thunder yet one with breathing space. Undercover is heavy rock for people who normally can’t stand the stuff.
Indeed, there was a nostalgic air to the event; a family reunion celebrating those still here and sharing common lament over those who have gone on ahead. Yet the music retains its magic, demonstrated by more than a few younger folk doubtless dragged to the show by parents or grandparents rocking out with complete joyous abandon. For those who have been there all along, Undercover’s presence was a welcome reminder that even though the days of youthful exuberance and concerts most every weekend have long passed, the Spirit still breathes and lives among, and within, those who have lived their lives guided by belief in, and active implementation of, God’s love for His creation.
Shed tears on stage and in the crowd were commonplace Sunday night. There is always the possibility there will not be another show such as this. But this is where faith enters the room. It is not yet winter for the lions of Undercover. Fall, yes. But as this night proved, the roar has yet to lose its majesty.