“Perfect isn’t the goal, in music or in life,” Jon Foreman said earnestly to a symphony hall full of fans in Little Rock, Arkansas. “It’s to chase after beauty, after joy.”
The off-the-cuff moment struck me as a poignant summary of the Fantastic Traveling Music Show as a whole: a tour, an experience, a means for chasing after joy invincible.
As an unabashed Switchfoot devotee for well over a decade, I saw the tour twice– a decision made in part because Switchfoot shows come with the particular magic of never being the same twice. The setlist is different every single night. This was certainly true of Memphis, where the band stopped on October 26, and Little Rock, where I saw them again on October 29.
The structure of the Fantastic Traveling Music Tour is part visual narrative, part rock show, with a dash of Life Aquatic aesthetic. The experience is broken down into two sets. An acoustic set opens, introducing the concept that the band has been shipwrecked (complete with an actual wrecked ship on stage, Life Aquatic style uniforms, a faux campfire, and an illusion starry night sky). The second set is fully plugged in rock and roll, distinguished by an air balloon in the background to signify being lifted out of the shipwreck to take flight.
That basic narrative, from shipwreck to flight, serves as the backbone that the songs flesh out. The band shared about the symbolism of shipwreck in their own lives, from the Hello Hurricane days when they questioned their career and chose to go independent, to Jerome Fontamillas’s recent bout with cancer. The shipwrecked songs were presented in stripped down arrangements that lost none of their power, from “Live it Well” to “Hello Hurricane” to iconic set closer “Dare You to Move.”
In true Switchfoot style, musical excellence and musical chaos both constantly collided on stage. Jon Foreman had learned ukulele expressly for this tour, while his brother Tim one upped him (as they joked) by learning upright bass. A freestyle section of the set allowed band members to each present abbreviated covers of classics (which in Memphis, as you’d imagine, involved a lot of Elvis).
But the musical experience didn’t belong exclusively to the band. Big plastic bottles were available on both sides of the room for fans to submit song requests, messages ultimately passed up to Tim Foreman and Drew Shirley to sort through and select from. This resulted in pulling out old school hits like “Company Car.” In Little Rock, an attendee requested “Let That Be Enough” with the explanation that her husband once learned to play it on guitar for her– resulting in Jon pulling her husband on stage to perform the song with them.
That chaos is sustainable in part because of one of my favorite things about Switchfoot: they don’t use backing tracks live. Nearly all major performers lean on prerecorded instrument and backing vocal tracks to fill in musical gaps and present a sound as close as possible to their records. While that is an integral and by no means shameful standard in our arena tour era, to see a band presenting only what they can produce on stage is always a heady breath of fresh air. Jerome Fontamillas is a crucial part of this in his role on keys, as is Drew Shirley with his mastery of guitar pedals and tones. This allows the band to seamlessly pick up requests for even lesser played gems, as I saw them do with “Thrive,” “Oh Gravity,” and “We Are One Tonight.”
The second set had a feeling of absolute elation from beginning to end, fitting for the concept of being lifted by a hot air balloon. As you might gather from the massive stage pieces mentioned, there was a sense of extravagant fun in every part of the set design, including some of the best lighting design I’ve ever seen.
There’s a stronger showing in the second set each night from the last two records, songs like “If The House Burns Down,” “Native Tongue,” and “I Won’t Let You Go.” As always, Jon Foreman was in and out of the crowd, inviting the audience into the songs. One night, I saw the requests skew towards some of the best of Hello Hurricane. A few nights later, the set favored Vice Verses. The magic of each evening was that it belonged so particularly to that one room. “I found miracles there in your eyes,” the band proclaimed through “Needle and Haystack Life.” I think every person in the room felt it, believed just for an instant that maybe their soul was a miracle in the process of happening.
Everything, from the songs chosen to the pieces on stage to the banter back and forth between the band and the audience, seemed to be unified towards one purpose: joy. After Jon Foreman led the audience in singing back to him a stream of increasingly complex melodies, he stepped back for a moment to soak it in before telling us “as far as the functionality of that? Just joy.”
And Switchfoot’s music is able to tell that story so well because it’s sung from the shipwrecks. Towards the beginning of the experience, the band sings “Joy Invincible” from their new album:
was the song the pain couldn’t destroy
You’re my joy invincible.
Switchfoot presented the tour as a way to thank their fans for more than 20 years of music. Really, it also ultimately served as proof of why this group can easily fill out auditoriums after over two decades. The songs cast a little light on the things that survive the shipwrecks, the things that outlast the storms: love, hope, redemption, melody, community. The resilience of those things through all the worst chapters we live is truly a joy invincible.
There are a few dates left of the Fantastic Traveling Music Show, and I highly recommend you catch them. It might remind you, as it reminded me, why you love music. It might remind you what joy sounds like.
The Fantastic Traveling Music Show was presented in partnership with Food For the Hungry, providing tangible hope to those most in need. Learn more and get involved at fh.org.