U2's lead singer Bono made an emotional appeal last year to U.S. Christians to put their faith into action and join his crusade to alleviate Africa's staggering one-two punch of AIDS and poverty.
Among those who heeded the call are a dozen top Christian bands and artists who contributed songs to a new benefit disc, “In the Name of Love: United for Africa,” due for release Jan. 27 on Sparrow Records.
The CD, which features 13 U2 covers by such Christian-music stars as Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, Delirious?, Nichole Nordeman, Toby Mac, and Toledo's Sanctus Real, will help raise money for charitable organizations working to resolve the African plight.
Bono, the charismatic lead singer of Irish supergroup U2, made a quick U.S. speaking tour last year trying to gain support for the African relief efforts. It's a project that he has embraced zealously, including the founding in 2002 of a nonprofit organization called DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa).
During a visit to Nashville last year, Bono met with Christian music stars and executives at the home of musician Charlie Peacock and challenged them to take a stand on the issue.
Lynn Nichols, then-vice president of A&R for Sparrow, the largest Christian label, said the meeting was the inspiration for the tribute disc.
“I'm a big fan of the band, just a huge fan of U2, and I've always seen those guys as one of the most influential bands of our time,” Nichols said from Nashville. “Not just from a musicality standpoint, but also from their influence on culture and in society. And there's always been a tremendous amount of spiritual overtones coming out of that band, from Bono and [guitarist] Edge in particular. "
But the timing for a tribute disc never seemed quite right until that meeting with Bono, he said.
"It was kind of a catalyst for me," Nichols said. "He challenged the artists and the Christian music industry to go out and be activists and to wake up the church and join in his cause, which was the African AIDS crisis."
A compilation of U2 covers would not just be a tribute to the Irish band, but it also would provide a way to raise funds for a worthy cause, Nichols said.
Almost all of the musicians he approached with the idea jumped at the chance, he said, and he wanted the artists to be able to choose which song to cover.
"For this generation, U2 was really a core influence," Nichols said. "They cut their teeth on U2 records, learned to play music and write songs listening to U2. I think everybody had a song in mind that they wanted to do."
Nordeman chose "Grace," Sixpence sang "Love Is Blindness," Pillar performed "Sunday Bloody Sunday," Jars of Clay selected "All I Want Is You," and Sanctus Real contributed "Beautiful Day," the first single off the compilation.
Matt Hammitt, lead singer of Sanctus Real, agreed that Bono and colleagues - Edge, drummer Larry Mullen, Jr., and bassist Adam Clayton - have had an immeasurable influence on the music world since the Irish group's 1980 debut album.
"I honestly couldn't even express how much of an impact," Hammitt said. "They introduced a whole new element to rock and roll, mixing rock with something really melodic, and Edge's guitar sound has that [special-effects] delay that so many bands are using now."
But U2's impact is not limited to a sonic style, especially among Christian rockers, Hammitt said.
"Bono is such a real person. He's real down-to-earth. His struggles are very evident. He writes about real life problems and situations and he relates to common people. But he's also very open about his faith in Christ and that he's a Christian.
"I think it's really cool that the Christian musicians are showing their respect for U2 with this tribute album."
Sanctus Real's cover of "Beautiful Day," released several weeks ago, already has reached No. 3 on the Christian charts.
"That was a tough song," Nichols said, "because it's U2's most recent single and the biggest hit off their last record. It's one thing to get a really old song and dust it off, and just by doing it now you make it sound fresher. But that was a bold move for Sanctus - and they pulled it off."
"At first we were a little hestitant," Hammitt said. "We didn't want to do a version too much like the original; we wanted to put our own fingerprint on it. It's kind of a fine line, especially that particular U2 song, which was such a recent Top 40 single and fresh in everybody's mind."
The members of Sanctus Real - Hammitt on vocals and guitar, Chris Rohman on guitar, Mark Graalman on drums, and Steve Goodrum on bass - were surprised when they actually sat down for a listening session.
"The funny thing about the original," Hammitt said, "is that it sounds like a rock song but when you actually listen to it, it's almost like easy listening. I didn't really realize how laid-back the original was until we did our own version."
The Toledo band, which is now in Nashville working on its second disc for Sparrow, decided to put more of an edge, so to speak, on "Beautiful Day."
"I changed a little bit of the phrasing, but the guitars and drums were what really drove it," Hammitt said.
He said the band was both honored and surprised when Sparrow chose their song to be the first single instead of a cover by one of the more established Christian artists on the disc.
"That was pretty cool," Hammitt said. "We knew that the reason we were asked to be on the tribute in the first place was because our label was doing the project and they want to push their new artists. But it was an honor when Sparrow's radio staff actually chose our track out of all the ones they had. They said they chose it because it rocked."
In January, 2003, Bono, actress Ashley Judd, and a host of DATA officials launched a whirlwind campaign through the Midwest, speaking in churches and at Christian colleges hoping to win support for their efforts to combat AIDS, which kills 7,000 Africans a day, and to cut the continent's debt, which Bono likened to slavery in the United States before the Civil War.
In a telephone-based press conference in July, Bono told The Blade that the fight to help Africa is as much spiritual as it is political.
"I really see this as not only about the lives of our sisters and brothers in Africa," he said, "but about our own souls. This is the defining moment of our generation. This is what we're about. We'll look back in 50 or 60 years and people will say, 'Did you really let 20, 30 millions of people die whilst you had medicines that you could easily manufacture and distribute?'
"And people are going to swallow hard," Bono said. "And if the questions are not asked in schoolbooks in the future, they're certainly going to be asked when you meet your Maker."
Hammitt said musicians are always being asked to donate their time and energy for charities, and it's impossible to help everyone.
"I think Bono really has made a difference in raising awareness of the crisis over there," Hammitt said. "I hadn't thought too deeply about it, and I think most too Americans are like that - very sheltered, very ignorant, anddeeply about it, and I think most Americans are like that - very sheltered, very ignorant, and we've become too complacent. Really, the poorest of people in the United States would be considered rich in other parts of the world."
"In the Name of Love," which will be available at most retailers, makes it easy for Americans to help out, he said.
"People can get involved simply by picking up the CD because the profits are going to help fight AIDS in Africa."