First, a little bit of perspective.
It was my senior year of high school in March of 1987 when rumors surfaced that Christian rockers, Stryper were coming to town. The band, which had already been generating a healthy buzz in both the Christian and secular/MTV worlds with the songs “Calling On You,” “Free,” “Honestly” and the title-track from their ‘To Hell With The Devil’ album, was out on tour supporting the release and would soon be rolling into The State Theatre in Easton, Pennsylvania.
Easton is a small town that borders the western end of New Jersey and lies somewhere in between the metropolitan cities of New York and Philadelphia. With a population of 26,000, the highlight of a night in Easton in 1987 consisted of listening to the freight trains rumble through the downtown or hanging out at the local McDonald’s on South Third Street.
Needless to say, when word got out that Stryper was coming to town it was a pretty big deal. And for a seventeen-year-old punk who had his own visions of rock stardom, it was also a dream come true. I had already worn out my cassette copy of THWTD learning it at guitar lesson, and now I had the chance of seeing the band perform it at a place within walking distance from my home. I immediately scrounged up every last dollar of lawn mowing money and the loose change from the sofa cushions and camped out in front of the venue. My reward? A single, front-row ticket to the show!
I remember the band’s performance that night was amazing. Stryper– Michael Sweet, Robert Sweet, Oz Fox and Tim Gaines—wore their classic yellow and black uniforms, threw bibles into the audience and sang songs about positivity with soaring vocals and an infectious dual guitar attack. That show and tour remain one of the biggest highlights of my teenage years.
Fast-forward thirty years. I am now a middle-aged man, but still a punk-kid at heart. Dreams of rock stardom have been replaced by coffee, deadlines and a word processor. I may be a little thick in the middle now and my hairline may have receded, but my love of guitar and all things metal is still overflowing. So much so that last night I drove two hours outside the safe confines of Easton to catch Stryper performing the 30th anniversary of ‘To Hell With The Devil’ at The Stone Pony in Asbury, NJ.
Oh sure, I’ve heard the band perform many of the songs from ‘To Hell With The Devil’ over the years –including most recently last April at the famous Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles, but never in a celebration-style format of the entire album being performed in its entirety from front to back by those same original members, and I was not disappointed.
From the opening sounds of The Abyss (which kicks off ‘To Hell With Devil’) to the title-track, “Calling On You,” “Free” and “Honestly”, it was a time capsule of youth and music. Some of my other favorites from the album included “Holding On,” “More Than A Man” and the always emotional, “All of Me”.
As if seeing the band perform their biggest album in its entirely wasn’t enough, Stryper also went into an additional set of songs from their 33-year musical arsenal. Tracks like “Yahweh,” “God,” “Soldiers Under Command” and “Caught In the Middle” were fist pumping and magical, while the band’s infectious versions of Black Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell” and KISS’ “Shout it Out Loud” were met with equally enthusiastic response.
The band ended their two-hour performance with the dual encore of “Reach Out” and “Makes Me Wanna Sing”, both from their ‘Soldiers Under Command’ album and capping off a celebration that included a little bit of everything.
In fact, about the only thing missing from Stryper’s Stone Pony set was their monster hit, “Always There For You” from their 1988 album, ‘In God We Trust’. But after experiencing the band many times over these last thirty years –both from small towns to the big cities–I can honestly say that it made no difference.
For me, Stryper will always be there.
Stryper Set List (Asbury Park, NJ)
Abyss (To Hell With The Devil)
To Hell With the Devil
Calling on You
Sing Along Song
Rocking The World
All Of Me
More Than A Man
Battle Hymn of the Republic (pre-recorded)
In God We Trust
Heaven and Hell (Black Sabbath cover)
Shout It Out Loud (KISS cover)
Caught in the Middle
Soldiers Under Command
Makes Me Wanna Sing