Dan Russell is co-founder and producer of Soulfest, a packed, multi-day Christian music festival, and he runs a tight ship.
“My job at the festival is to put my arms around the artists as they come in, starting with the headliner (and on) down, and convey our theme, our message. We don’t want them just to roll in, yawn, get some catering, (do a) sound-check and perform. We want them, as much as we can, to recognize why we do Soulfest, and what it’s about. Hopefully ... they echo that in between their songs.”
Soulfest began in 1998 at Loon Mountain in Lincoln, moved to Gunstock Mountain Resort in Gilford in 2004, and has continued to expand every year. About 10,000 to 11,000 people a day are expected at this year’s event, plus more than 2,000 non-paying guests.
Russell says while the music is the main attraction, there’s a larger vision at play.
“We’re a music festival, and I think people refer to us as a faith-based, social-justice music festival, and that’s a mouthful,” he said. “Music is sort of the conduit through which we want to convey a message, which is, if you believe in God as omnipresent — everywhere — and you believe God is love, then that love is everywhere.”
That message is will spread across five stages, as more than 20 bands perform during a several-day span running today through Saturday.
Casting Crowns is one of three headlining bands to play at Soulfest, joining Newsboys and Third Day.
The seven-member band was formed in 1999 as part of a youth group at First Baptist Church in Daytona, Fla. Mark Hall, a youth pastor, is the lead vocalist and songwriter; Aside from mentoring teens, other band members also minister at various churches. The band is known for its contemporary Christian music, worship songs and piano ballads, mixing folk, bluegrass and country sounds.
“We try to be (at Soulfest) at least once every couple of years,” said Casting Crowns bassist Brian Scoggin. “We think it’s a great event. We really feel like the purpose behind it is something that lines up with what we believe in.”
The group’s latest album, “Thrive,” was released last winter and is Casting Crown’s 10th release. Music ranges from rock to contemporary Christian to grunge-rock/country.
“Everything you hear comes from something (singer and songwriter Hall) has been teaching, or even a specific situation that happened throughout the year. You’ll see a lot of those turn into songs on the album.”
Casting Crowns reigns as one of the top bands in the Christian music genre and can generate large crowds, Russell said of bringing back the group to Soulfest. The band, known for the single “Praise You in This Storm,” has earned Grammy and Dove Awards.
“They’re not rock ‘n’ roll as much as they are, maybe, adult rock ‘n’ roll,” Russell said. “They put the lyrics up on the screen; you can sing along with them. Their crowd is willing to sit outside or stand outside on a mountainside.”
And one Soulfest stage is just that, at the top of the mountain, where acoustic sets will be played.
“It’s a 360-degree panoramic view,” Russell said. “You see Lake Winnipesaukee, dragonflies in the air.”
At the main stage, award-winning artists will perform, while bands on the alternative stage may attract younger, niche listeners. An indoor stage, which fits about 500 people, will host more acoustic-based music.
“There’s something going on, different genres, all the time. At each stage, our objective is to have you go away and say, ‘Wow,’ and take something with you,” Russell said.“We all need more courage to actually love ourselves and love one another, and engage, and Casting Crowns will look for that.”
“The goal of the night for us is to have people singing along,” Scoggin added. “We really love to hear the people singing along with the songs.
“I’ve always loved music ... I knew I was doing good things by playing in those types of environments where people are worshiping God,” he said.
Russell also talked about an up-and-coming band.
“You know when a band is right on the verge of breaking through? For King and Country are playing (tonight), and they’ve played on the ‘Tonight Show’ and ‘Conan’,” Russell said.
Those seeking a little less melodic and a bit more soul-searching over the three-day event can visit prayer tents, and other opportunities for ministry will be available.
An outreach program at Soulfest will allow free tickets and camping for those who wouldn’t be able to afford fees.
“I hate hearing about single moms or people that lost their jobs,” Russell said. “You can’t even make your rent. Why would you ever think about going to something like this?
“Sometimes, someone sneaking up on you and saying, ‘Here — on us’ ... it’s enough to get your self-esteem back up and going again. That makes part of what we do more fun.”
In addition, 35 workshops and dozens of speakers will help convey Soulfest’s message this year: “courage to love.” Programs include a three-part series on suicide and drug overdose. Counselors who are experienced with issues of drug rehab and suicide in families also will be at Soulfest.