It's 30 degrees Celsius under a tent on a June night in Vaughan, Ont., north of Toronto. The drums are pounding. The guitar is strumming. The voices are harmonizing. The audience is swaying. The energy is electric. Suddenly, one of the lead singers – a friendly Australian-American – leaves the stage and walks across the tops of the seats into the audience, grasping outstretched hands, parting the sea of humanity, all the way to the back of the concert hall and onto the grass, greeting concert goers, not stopping until he’s almost to the fence. The drummer stops drumming; the guitarist stops strumming – a moment of silence. Then the lead singer breaks into an a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace,” accompanied by the entire audience. I feel goosebumps on my skin. For King and Country has arrived at Wonderland.
At this, the band’s first performance in Toronto, the lead singer greets “our friends from the British Commonwealth.” The audience consists of a sea of adults and children, male and female, well dressed and casual. Beside me is my professor husband, who is in lecture mode right now, deep into his summer courses, and whom I dragged reluctantly to the concert with a polite smile on his face. In front of us a young family of four is clapping and singing along to the music. A few rows behind us stands a shirtless man with a Guns & Roses tattoo, his arms upraised, praising God. We are divided by background, but we are all brothers and sisters united in Christ.
For King and Country was started by Joel and Luke Smallbone, who immigrated to America from Australia with their tight-knit family of nine – three brothers and two sisters – back in 1991. Their music-promoter father, struggling financially after a failed music deal, called on the children to help out. They raked leaves and mowed lawns to make ends meet. As teenagers, Joel and Luke worked closely with their father in the music business and sang backup for their gospel singer sister, Rebecca St. James.
Fixing their eyes
The brothers formed their own group in 2007, first called Joel & Luke, later called Austoville. For King and Country, derived from an old British battle cry, became the band’s permanent name in 2010, the King referring, of course, to God. They chose the name to “convey the message of believing in something bigger than oneself.”
For King and Country’s theme is an overtly Christian one. Yet, with two Grammys under their belt, they are reaching the secular world. As Luke explained in the e-mail interview I conducted with him: “Our hope is to write music that, no matter where you may be in life, it connects with who you are as a person.”
Their message connected with me: I first heard the band last November when the Grade 5 class at my daughter’s school sang “Fix My Eyes,” derived from Hebrews 12:2. Joel explained that while writing the song “Fix My Eyes” in 2012, he and his brother were going through a hectic time: Joel was about to get married, Luke’s wife was expecting a baby and Luke was experiencing serious health issues. All of a sudden, the brothers realized what they valued most in life. “Love like I’m not scared / Give when it’s not fair / Take time for a brother / Live life for another,” wrote the brothers, inspired by the hymn, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” All these things are “worthless if we don’t fix our eyes on above,” said Joel. The song now serves as the band’s mantra.
The Smallbone brothers, Joel (left) and Luke.
Normally restricting their performances to the United States, For King and Country is now spreading their mantra across the globe. I asked Luke, fresh off the band’s European tour, how European audiences differ from North American ones. He replied that he thinks, “European concert goers are much more passionate about [Christian] concerts because in our world they probably don’t get as much Christian music as America does.” Statistics are bearing that out. The Huffington Post writer E. Brooks Holifield says: “While 60 percent of Americans say that religion is very important to them, only 21 percent of Western Europeans say that.” Europe craves the band’s message of hope.
The Smallbone brothers spread hope with humble hearts. They have struggled in life, just like the average person. During the concert, Luke shared with the audience his battle with a life-threatening illness. His 6-foot-4 frame dropped to 125 pounds. His wife, fearing the worst, pleaded with him: “I don’t want to lose you.” Luke asked himself: “Where does my help come from? – My help comes from God.” Out of that illness evolved their hit song, “Shoulders.” Today, Luke, in full remission, is on fire for God, evident in the energy he displays on stage.
For King and Country doesn’t just speak to those broken in body but also those broken in spirit. When they first started out, they performed at many women’s conferences. “We realized that so many women didn’t value who they truly were.” Out of those conferences, the song “Priceless” and its subsequent campaign were born. Joel and Luke want women to know that they are priceless, and that they should be treated as such, not as objects. Their message to men: “It is time to stand up and lead and be respectful and live our lives respecting and honoring women.”
Both brothers walk the talk. Luke, married since 2010, now has two sons. When asked about his legacy in a 2014 interview, he didn’t mention For King and Country but rather: “My legacy in life is how I love my wife and my son.” It was his oldest son who inspired the title for the band’s newest CD, Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong.
“I have a son who looks up to me and says ‘Dada,’” Luke reflects. “I can’t believe how much love he has in his eyes when he says that word. I can see the complete trust and safety that my son feels when he is with me. When he began to walk, I often thought, if I could run wild like a one-year-old does and live a life that embraces adventure in that way I think I would see life entirely differently.”
“Run Wild” is the title song on the CD which earned the band Best Contemporary Christian Album at the Grammys in 2015. The Christian Herald described their second CD as having “soaring melodies, driving rhythms, theatrical instrumentation and personal themes.” One trait I would add to that summary is their boundless energy. Where does it come from? About an hour before each concert, the band huddles together and their father, also their manager, leads them in prayer. “This moment is one of the things that defines For King and Country the most,” says Luke. The energy that the band brings onto the stage flows directly from their devotional time, from the Holy Spirit.
Back under the tent at Wonderland, an hour has flown by like a minute. Joel and Luke say their final goodbyes to their Canadian fans – but not before Joel once more walks towards us, his arm upraised, his eyes closed, his voice ready, to sing one last verse for King and country.