Seeing the Gospel in The New Amsterdams

Apart from the string of punk-themed tattoos running down his right arm, there isn’t anything about Matthew Pryor that screams

music icon” In his late 20’s, Pryor leans against the back wall of Schuba’s, a hipster bar on the north side of Chicago, waiting for the opening act (an odd conglomeration of two keyboards, a violin, and a loud, Clash-influenced guitarist) to finish playing.

Despite his status as one of the most beloved frontmen in indie-rock history (Pryor spent the ’90’s leading The Get Up Kids, emo-pop forerunners who toured with the likes of Braid and Green Day), he goes largely unnoticed in the sold-out crowd. He’s dressed in a plain blue sweater, worn-out jeans, and a pair of broken down black loafers that testify to a heavy touring schedule.

When he steps onto the stage with his mostly-acoustic outfit The New Amsterdams (originally a side project of The Get Up Kids, now his full time job), the crowd goes silent for just a moment, before letting out a genuinely enthusiastic cheer.

The band runs through a set of what some critics have called “cotton-rock,” a rootsy brand of alt-country with a tinge of Pryor’s punk swagger tossed in. Most of the songs aren’t hook-driven enough to be considered sing-along numbers, but many members of the crowd silently mouth the lyrics word-for-word.

After the show, Pryor greeted a long line of fans. I noticed that he took as much as 10 minutes with some of them. As I waited my turn to pick up a copy of the band’s latest effort on vinyl (a record entitled “At the Foot of My Rival” which I highly recommend), I couldn’t help but make a mental comparison between Pryor and one of my earliest experiences working in Christian music.

Ministry?

Looking back, I was very idealistic at the age of 19, my first year working in Christian radio. I was excited out of my skin about getting to do “stage time” (a.k.a. get up on stage and try to get the crowd to check out your radio station) at an actual concert. What I saw happen next, sickened both my heart and my stomach, and took me years to get past. (I went on to learn that this was a very isolated incident. Over the course of my career I have been constantly inspired by the humble, servant-minded people within the world of Christian music. But anything movement that grows to a notable size is bound to attract a few bad apples).

Before taking the stage, I saw the headlining Christian group circle up for a quick prayer. I couldn’t help but notice that they approached prayer in a way that you and I might approach brushing our teeth. Towards the end of the set, they delivered a canned, very churchy message that was probably given the exact same way the night before and would be given the night after.

In the merch tent, the group ran their fans through the autograph line the same way I used to load cattle onto a trailer back on the family farm: safe, sterile, and fast. I just couldn’t believe that a group who was “representing Christ” with their music could feel such obvious apathy towards the people who they were supposed to be ministering to.

A moment of quiet redemption

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Back at The New Amsterdams table, I witnessed a very different approach to interacting with fans. A college kid stepped up to greet Pryor, and his voice quivered from the first word. “I wanted to thank you for playing tonight,” the kid said. “I had a ticket to your last show in Chicago, but I had to stay home, because my Mom was very sick with colon cancer.” He paused a moment before continuing.

“She died two nights ago.” With that, the kid broke down sobbing.

Pryor instantly wrapped his arms around the sobbing teen, and spoke a few quiet words about time easing the pain, and then told the kid that he was loved. As the weeping kid walked away, I saw Pryor wipe a tear from his own eye.

Matthew Pryor is a father of two from Lawrence, Kansas. He will be remembered as an indie-rock legend. As far as I know, he makes no claim to any particular faith. He drinks beer on stage, and uses profanity sparingly.

And on December 14th, 2007, Matthew Pryor taught me a lesson about living out the Gospel that I will never forget.

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