On a recent Sunday evening, the energy inside The Wayfarer was palpable. From the stage all the way to the pool table in the back, eyes were closed, hands were up in the air and mouths were open singing a familiar refrain.
Amazing grace how sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me
It may not be the punk or indie rock that usually reverberates through this storied Orange County venue, but its resonance with the crowd was just as powerful.
I once was lost, but now am found/Was blind but now I see
The crowd wasn't the young, hipster one you'd normally expect to see at The Wayfarer, either. Nor is it one you'd see in a church, where all of the songs on that night's set list first originated. It's unexpectedly multi-generational: swaying dads drinking beers, humming grandma's clutching wine and college girls drinking nothing with a hand over their heart while twenty-something dudes in plaid punch the sky with closed eyes and sing along like it was an emo night. It's LGBT friendly too.
This is Beer & Hymns, one hell of a monthly Americana sing-a-long that just so happens to mention God and Jesus sometimes.
“We focus on old-school hymns that aren't even played at contemporary church services anymore,” says Kristen Howerton, founder of Beer & Hymns Orange County, who also is one of the band's singers. “I grew up on these songs and I know a lot of other people did. We want to take away a the baggage a lot of us have with these songs from our childhood churches and be around like-minded people without the fundamentalism inherent in how many of us were raised.”
And lest you think this is some well-designed scheme to lure you into a religious nostalgia trip so they can push you towards a church, think again. The band on stage isn't affiliated with any evangelical Christian denomination, much less any one church, and they don't really care if you are either. In fact, some of the band members are Catholic and some aren't church-going at all.
To drive this point home, Beer & Hymns' oft-repeated tagline is “No preaching, no proselytizing...just a good old-fashioned sing-a-long.” On this, they emphatically deliver.
“Our main goal is to have fun and provide a place where people can sing songs familiar to them,” Howerton says. “We want people up and dancing. We want that vibe – rowdy and fun.”
Orange County isn't the only place with its own Beer & Hymns, but it may be the most organized and accessible expression of the concept yet. The idea originated in Denver, with a tattooed, foul-mouthed Lutheran pastor who invited the public to sit in a bar and sing church songs four times a year. Other progressive churches picked up on the low-pressure worship hour and soon “beers and hymns” nights were happening in cities like Portland and Nashville.
Howerton had seen videos from the Denver church's events, but it wasn't until she attended a pop-up Beer & Hymns at a spirituality and arts festival in North Carolina that she decided to call up some friends and make one happen in her hometown.
“I thought it was so cool,” she says. “I wished we had something like this.”
The first Beer & Hymns Orange County was held at Durty Nellie's in September 2014 with Chad Markley, a skilled worship-band leader, guiding a Mumford and Sons-looking band through folksy renditions of forgotten hymns like “O How I Love Jesus,” “Holy Holy Holy” and “Shout To the Lord.” Unlike some of the other Beer & Hymns events around the country, which do things either a capella or with a single guitar player taking song suggestions while the audience remains seated, Orange County's act is far more like a polished rock concert.
At weekly practices, the band – which calls itself Creaky Floors and has expanded into an octet – creates contemporary arrangements that intentionally build a radio-friendly Americana sound around the songs. Lyrics are printed (about 25 are played per night) and distributed to an all-inclusive, standing-room-only crowd, who throughout the night become a full-fledged choir in what can only be described as a spiritual flash mob.
“We're facilitating, but we're not leading the singing. We're always being mindful that is what we're doing engaging people to participate,” Howerton says. “We want it to be an active experience.”
Between sets from Creaky Floors, like-minded bands like the Eagle Rock Gospel Singers, Pawn Shop Kings and Moonsville Collective perform. And after the hymn-ing, there's an after party, where cover songs chosen on a theme that's different each month (February's is “cheesy love songs”) keep the sing-a-long going.
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Since launching a year and a half ago, Beer & Hymns Orange County has grown out of multiple venues, from Durty Nellies to The Boathouse to The Constellation Room. Their first anniversary party packed the Lido Theater with hundreds of attendees from all walks of life.
As the popularity grows each month, so, too, do the conservative haters, who often leave disapproving comments on the event's Facebook page, decrying the encouragement of drinking alongside God's songs.
“They say we're mixing the spiritual with the secular, but to me, that's life,” Howerton says. “It doesn't bother us at all. We know it's not for everyone. [Negativity] is just the cost of a growing movement.”
Beer & Hymns' next show is Sunday Feb. 21 at 6:30 p.m. at The Wayfarer, 843 W 19th St., Costa Mesa